- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2003

JERICHO, West Bank — Seeking to advance a U.S.-backed peace plan, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice held talks with the Palestinian prime minister yesterday, a day ahead of an expected truce announcement by Palestinian militants.

Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, in his four-hour meeting with Miss Rice in the West Bank city of Jericho, pressed demands for the release of political prisoners held by Israel, a full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian territories and a freeze on Jewish settlement activity there, Palestinian Cabinet Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said.

“The meeting was very positive,” he said, with American officials showing an “understanding” for Palestinian demands.

A senior Palestinian official said late yesterday that Miss Rice had invited Mr. Abbas to come to Washington “soon” to meet with President Bush.

Miss Rice meets with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon today, when militant groups plan a formal announcement that they will halt attacks against Israelis for three months.

However, Mohammed al-Hindi, an Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza, said the formal announcement could be put off until tomorrow, if necessary.

Intensive meetings continued yesterday to work out the final wording of the truce announcement and to try to bring 10 smaller factions on board.

It also remained to be seen whether all militants would comply with a truce. The Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in particular are made up of many rebellious armed gangs scattered throughout the West Bank and thought to be difficult to control.

Together with a preliminary agreement by Israel to withdraw troops from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Bethlehem, a truce could provide a major boost to the “road map” peace plan started by Mr. Bush at a Mideast summit June 4.

Violence has plagued attempts to implement the road map, a blueprint to end 33 months of fighting and establish a Palestinian state by 2005. Yesterday, at least one vehicle in a convoy of U.S. diplomatic cars traveling in Gaza was damaged after two explosive devices blew up, Israel’s military said. No injuries were reported, and U.S. Embassy officials declined to comment or give more details.

The Syrian-based leaders of the two main Islamic groups, Islamic Jihad and the larger Hamas group, agreed to a truce earlier in the week, according to a Palestinian legislator involved in the negotiations. Gaza-based militants initially denied that there was a deal, then said details remained to be worked out.

“We have accepted a conditional cease-fire for three months,” Mr. al-Hindi told the Associated Press yesterday, in the first on-the-record confirmation of the truce from a militant leader.

Ramadan Shalah, the main Islamic Jihad leader based in Damascus Syria, told the Dubai, United Arab Emirates-based Al Arabiya satellite channel that Islamic Jihad “has agreed with the Hamas movement and the Fatah movement to suspend military operations” against Israel. He said he expected an announcement today.

The truce applies to the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Israel, fulfilling a key Israeli demand.

The emerging truce has received a lukewarm response from Israel and the United States, who say that armed groups should be dismantled as required by the road map. Palestinian officials fear that a crackdown could trigger a civil war and have opted instead for persuasion.

The road map requires that Israeli forces gradually withdraw to positions held before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000.

Israel was “cautiously optimistic” about the pullback, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yonatan Peled said yesterday, but expected the Palestinian Authority to “keep a lid on terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip.”

The deal, reached in talks between Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan and Israel’s Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, came with a pledge by Israel to halt targeted killings of wanted Palestinians, one of the militants’ key demands for continuing with a truce.

Palestinians in turn agreed to act against what Israel calls “ticking bombs,” assailants on their way to attack Israelis.

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