Israel Frees 26 Palestinian PrisonersIBTimes UK

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has welcomed the Israeli move to release a third group of prisoners as part of the US-brokered peace efforts in the Middle East.

Israel has freed 26 Palestinian prisoners from its jails ahead of US Secretary of State John Kerry's arrival in the region. In all, Israel has freed 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners.

The released prisoners were welcomed by cheering crowds in the West Bank and Gaza upon their arrival.

"It is a day of joy to our people," said Abbas. "Today is a day of joy to our people, our families and our hero prisoners who have achieved freedom. We promise that this is not the last time that prisoners will be released."

The latest group of prisoners were jailed before the 1993 Oslo accords and had been serving sentences ranging from 19 to 28 years for killing Israeli soldiers and civilians. Among the released, 18 were from the West Bank, five from East Jerusalem and three from Gaza.

But Abbas, who waited at his headquarters in Ramallah to greet the prisoners, insisted: "We will not sign a final peace deal with Israel before all the prisoners are released."

The US State Department praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the release.

"The Israeli government's commitment to release Palestinian prisoners helped enable the start and continuation of the final status negotiations, and we believe this is a positive step forward in the overall process," said State Department spokesperson Marie Harf.

Netanyahu, prior to the release, told a party meeting: "Leadership is judged by the ability to implement decisions, difficult as they may be. We were not elected to make easy decisions."

However, to ease domestic tensions, especially among right-wing politicians, Netanyahu is set to unveil new settlement plans that include an additional 1,400 housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.