Mon, Feb 07, 2005 - Page 1 News List

Rice readies to step into Middle East peace process

AGENCIES , ANKARA, JERUSALEM AND LONDON

Condoleezza Rice began her first visit as secretary of state to the heart of the Middle East conflict yesterday with Israelis and Palestinians already set on a new course of dialogue after four years of violence.

Both sides will hold a summit in Egypt tomorrow on reviving a US-backed peace "road map," making the mission of Washington's top diplomat less of an arm-twisting exercise and more of an affirmation of change after Yasser Arafat's death.

Criticized for too little involvement in Middle East peace efforts in his first term, US President George W. Bush sent Rice to the region to back up his pledge to press harder for an end to the conflict.

But she will not attend the summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and signalled she preferred to see Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas make progress as free of foreign mediation as possible.

"I hope we would all get into a mind-set that says if the parties are able to continue to move on their own, that's the very best outcome," Rice told reporters on the way to Ankara during an eight-day tour of Europe and the Middle East.

Rice planned to hold talks with Sharon in Jerusalem yesterday and see Abbas, whose election last month to succeed Arafat stirred international optimism, in the West Bank the next day.

She pledged to discuss ways for the sides to coordinate security and defuse crises when they "inevitably" occur.

One crisis was averted yesterday when negotiators hammering out terms for the summit agreed to defer a decision on how many Palestinian prisoners Israel will release as a goodwill gesture.

Under the deal, a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee will review the release roster after tomorrow's talks in what a Palestinian official called "a positive step forward."

Earlier yesterday, Rice attempted to reassure nervous Turkish leaders that Washington won't allow Iraqi Kurds to form a breakaway state.

Anti-US sentiments have been strong in Turkey since the start of the war in neighboring Iraq.

Rice met yesterday with Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. She saw Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday.

Turks worry the war in Iraq could lead to the disintegration of the country and the creation of a Kurdish state in the northern areas. That could embolden Kurds in southeastern Turkey, where the Turkish army has been battling Kurdish rebels since 1984.

Meanwhile, in an interview broadcast yesterday, Rice also reiterated US concerns about plans by the EU to lift a ban on arms sales to China , warning that such a move could upset the military balance in the region.

Washington and Brussels held different views on the maintenance of the embargo, imposed in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Rice told BBC television.

"Friends sometimes disagree, we have to be able to do that and try to work our way through," she said in an interview recorded on Friday, when she was in London.

"We have concerns about the lifting of the embargo because we have deep concerns about the military balance in East Asia," Rice said.

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