Sun, Aug 24, 2003 - Page 6 News List

All eyes turn to US for Middle East hope

PLANS Yesterday was a day of relative calm as the Americans widened a freeze on Hamas assets and plans were made to dispatch more officials to the troubled region


Israeli and Palestinian officials, bracing for a new escalation in violence, looked yesterday to the US to salvage a peace plan left in tatters by the collapse of a shaky truce.

Both sides launched appeals to Washington to stem the latest outbreak of bloodshed that has halted implementation of a US-sponsored peace roadmap aimed at establishing a Palestinian state by 2005.

The Americans stepped up their pressure on the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which it blames for the continued carnage, widening a freeze on the movement's assets and targeting sources of support.

The US also planned to dispatch senior officials, including US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, to the region to bolster ongoing talks by US chief peace monitor John Wolf.

Israelis and Palestinians blame each other for the latest cycle of violence capped this week by a suicide bombing that killed 20 passengers on a Jerusalem bus and a retaliatory Israeli airstrike on a Hamas leader.

A relative calm settled on the region yesterday but both sides saw Washington as key to avoiding another spiral of tit-for-tat attacks.

"The whole situation is dependent on the Americans," Nabil Abu Rudeina, a close aide of Yasser Arafat, said a day after the Palestinian leader chaired a new crisis meeting at his West Bank base in Ramallah.

"They should come out with a serious and decisive position to put an end to the Israeli escalation and violations," Abu Rudeina said. "It is a very dangerous situation. The Americans need to intervene."

Dov Weissglas, chief of staff for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, also urged US help at a meeting on Friday with US envoys here and in a phone call with US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Israeli public radio said.

It said Weissglas reiterated the need for the US to pressure Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmud Abbas to disarm and dismantle the radical groups and try those suspected of violence.

US officials have expressed alarm at the dramatic deterioration of the situation in the past two weeks after the truce declared on June 29 started out promisingly with a sharp reduction in the death toll.

Scrambling to find a formula for restoring peace they turned this week to Arafat, whom they had shunned for more than a year, and urged him to hand over control of all Palestinian security forces to Abbas to fight the militants.

A senior Palestinian official said that Arafat thought a new truce was possible if the Israelis formally recognized it, pulled out of occupied towns and ended their practice of "targeted killings" of militant leaders.

Armitage said on Friday he would visit the Middle East next month to "touch base" with officials in several Arab nations, and a more senior US official might also travel to the region in the coming weeks.

US President George W. Bush pledged on Friday to stay personally involved in the peace process and announced a widening of the US campaign against Hamas, which with Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for Tuesday's suicide bombing.

"If people want there to be peace in the Middle East, if the Palestinians want to see their own state, they've got to dismantle the terrorist networks," Bush said.

He said his government, which had previously frozen the assets of Hamas elements operating in the United States, would now target six senior Hamas officials abroad and five organizations accused of helping the group.

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