JERUSALEM: Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners Tuesday as part of US-brokered peace talks ahead of the latest visit to the region by Secretary of State John Kerry.
The release prompted elation among Palestinians, who welcomed the prisoners back into the West Bank and Gaza Strip after they had spent two to three decades in Israeli jails.
But as Kerry geared up for his 10th visit to the region since March, an anticipated announcement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government of further settlement construction - designed to appease hardliners - looked set again to undermine the talks.
Kerry, expected to arrive Wednesday, has been pressing the two sides to agree on a framework for a final settlement ahead of an agreed late April target date for the talks to conclude.
The prisoners were the third batch of 104 detainees that Netanyahu pledged to release in four stages when the peace talks were revived in July. All were imprisoned before the 1993 Oslo accords, which officially launched the Middle East peace process.
Many Israelis, including families of victims of Palestinian attacks, protested the release, accusing the government of freeing convicted killers who could return to militancy.
But the freed prisoners were hailed by Palestinians as heroes imprisoned for fighting against the Israeli occupation, with some welcomed back to Ramallah in the West Bank, others to east Jerusalem and the remainder into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Palestinian media hailed the prisoners as "heroic fighters" and looked forward to the release of the final batch by end of April, when the nine-month period for talks is to end.
The 18 men taken to Ramallah were warmly embraced by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in his presidential compound, a correspondent said, before laying flowers on the grave of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Abbas pledged to the prisoners and their exuberant families that "there would be no final agreements (with Israel) until all prisoners were in their homes."
The Islamist Hamas movement ruling Gaza hailed the prisoner release, but reiterated its rejection of the peace talks and slammed the notion that freeing prisoners justified Israeli settlement expansion.
"The release of any prisoner is a gain for our people and is a right for the inmates," Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya told a news conference in the besieged Palestinian territory.
"But we reject negotiating with the occupation (Israel) and we do not accept that settlements should be expanded in exchange for that."
Tuesday's release was expected to be accompanied by announcements of new construction plans for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, including east Jerusalem, as the previous two prisoner releases were.
Such a move is likely to infuriate the Palestinians and the international community, providing a further challenge for Kerry, whose intense shuttle diplomacy managed to revive the talks after a three-year hiatus.
The pressure on Netanyahu to make such an announcement comes both from within his own coalition government - the housing minister lives in a West Bank settlement and hardliners oppose any peace talks - and from the Israeli public.
Kerry will also have to quell tensions that rose after an Israeli ministerial committee on Sunday gave initial approval to a bill annexing Jordan Valley settlements, a largely symbolic move expected to be shot down by the government.
The prisoner release, shortly after 0000 GMT, came after an Israeli court rejected a last-minute appeal by victims' families.
Victims' families had especially protested the release of the five east Jerusalem prisoners, which they said contradicted a commitment made by Netanyahu.
The 26 inmates had served 19 to 28 years for killing Israeli civilians or soldiers.