Thu, Jul 10, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Egypt tries to save truce as Abbas threatens to quit

REUTERS , JENIN, WEST BANK

Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian man in a West Bank raid yesterday and Egyptian envoys began talks with Palestinian militant leaders to bolster a ceasefire critical to a new peace process with Israel.

The US-backed "road map" plan is troubled both by militant threats to abandon the truce and high-level discontent within the Palestinians' mainstream Fatah faction over moderate Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas's performance in peace talks.

Military sources said the Palestinian was killed after he opened fire on soldiers arresting a wanted man in an area of the northern West Bank from which Islamist militants sent a suicide bomber into Israel on Monday, violating the 10-day-old truce.

Senior security officials from Egypt, which helped broker the truce, met Palestinian faction chiefs in Gaza on how to preserve the pact amid warnings from militants that it would collapse unless Israel frees thousands of prisoners.

"The Egyptians are here to calm things down and help the truce endure," said a Palestinian official after the delegation began a meeting with Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

Palestinian security sources said Israeli forces entered the village of Burqin close to Jenin before dawn, burst into a Palestinian home and arrested a 22-year-old militant.

The sources said that moments later soldiers fired at the neighboring home of the militant's 27-year-old brother, who they said was killed while looking out a window. They also said the man's wife was shot in the head and seriously wounded.

About 2,000 demonstrators marched through Jenin afterward holding up photographs of relatives arrested by Israeli troops in raids. "No truce without the release of all prisoners in Israeli jails, without exception!" they chanted.

US President George W. Bush unfurled the "road map" at a peace summit on June 4 and Palestinian faction leaders declared a truce, but some local militant cells refuse to abide by it.

Monday's suicide attack, in which an Israeli woman was killed in her home, was the first since the truce was announced.

Internal Fatah opposition confronting Abbas arose largely from his inability to persuade Israel to free up to 8,000 prisoners. It has agreed to release a few hundred but Abbas needs many more out to reduce the popular appeal of militants loath to abandon an uprising against Israel begun in 2000.

Weighing in to shore up the moderate Palestinian premier, the US planned to provide direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority -- in a break from longstanding US policy, US administration and congressional sources said.

"[Bush] is confident in his leadership and looks forward to continuing to work with him," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said during a South Africa visit by the president.

A senior administration official played down Abbas's threat as part of "internal Palestinian machinations," saying it was "sometimes their way of doing business."

Israeli media said John Wolf, Bush's envoy overseeing steps on the "road map," was pressing the Israeli government to speed up prisoner releases to help Abbas see off hardline foes.

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