Sun, Jul 24, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Top US diplomat visits West Bank to shore up truce

AP , RAMALLAH, WEST BANK

Encouraged by recent attempts to crack down on militant groups, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday came to this West Bank city to press the Palestinians to take further steps to rein in the violent groups.

Rice was in the region in a hastily arranged trip to try and rescue a shaky Mideast truce amid an escalation of violence, determined that Israel's withdrawal in the middle of next month from the Gaza Strip go ahead as planned.

Rice met with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, together with several Palestinian Cabinet ministers, at the start of a daylong series of talks.

Later she was to meet President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yousef -- who is responsible for the Palestinian security forces -- amid signs the Palestinians were buckling under heavy Israeli and US pressure to clamp down on groups like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

Palestinian security forces and gunmen loosely affiliated with Abbas' ruling Fatah Party clashed twice in recent days with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. The clashes came as Israel massed thousands of troops on the Gaza border, threatening to invade unless the Palestinians stopped militants from firing rockets and mortars at Jewish settlements and nearby Israeli towns.

"Rice demanded more Palestinian efforts to consolidate the truce," said Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan Khatib, who attended the meeting. Israel and the Palestinians declared an end to the more-than four years of violence at a February summit in Egypt.

Earlier, Rice welcomed the actions of the Palestinian police.

"The Palestinians have begun to act," she said. "I would just encourage them in that work because I am quite certain that Palestinians mothers and fathers and grandparents want a world in which their children can live in peace and prosperity just as Israeli parents and grandparents want the same for their children."

Rice's meetings with the Palestinians also focused on encouraging coordination between Israel and the Palestinians during the planned pullout, where Israel will leave all 21 Gaza Settlements and four more in the West Bank.

Both sides want the pullout to proceed quietly but fear it could quickly deteriorate into bloodshed if the militants attack Israeli troops engaged in evacuating the settlers.

According to Khatib, Qureia briefed Rice on Palestinian preparations for taking over Gaza after the withdrawal, but said they were being hampered by Israeli refusal to change entry regulations into the coastal strip.

There are still 13 issue the Palestinians want agreed on before the Israeli withdrawal, said Diana Buttu, an adviser to Abbas, including a passage route linking Gaza to the West Bank, the opening of Gaza's port and airport and control of border crossings into Gaza.

Israel is reluctant to relinquish control over these facilities, fearing that without Israeli supervision militants would smuggle arms into Gaza.

Qureia also asked Rice to pressure Israel to halt settlement expansion in the West Bank, Khatib said.

On Friday Rice met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his ranch in the Negev desert.

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