JERUSALEM - Israel's cabinet has approved the release of 400 Palestinian prisoners in what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called a bid to bolster moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of a Gaza pullout.

But the Palestinian Authority said Israel had failed to coordinate the release with it and would leave behind bars prisoners the Palestinian public most wanted to see free.

Israel freed 500 prisoners on February 21 after Abbas and Sharon announced a ceasefire at a summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Sharon later suspended the promised release of 400 more, citing Palestinian inaction in disarming militants.

"Israel has complaints about the Palestinians, even very serious complaints, relating to the implementation of the Sharm el-Sheikh understandings," Sharon told the cabinet, which voted 18-3 in favor of the release.

"But even those who believe the events of the coming months could strengthen extremist terrorist forces, must understand the need to bolster the main, moderate element of the Palestinian Authority and carry out what we promised," he said.

Sharon was referring to Israel's planned evacuation in August of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank and fears among opponents of the move that anti-Israeli militants would claim the pullout as a victory.

The prisoners issue is highly emotive for Palestinians, who see their 8,000 brethren held in Israeli jails as fighters for freedom from occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

- REUTERS