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Sharon accepts road map, raises peace hopes

Jerusalem, May 24 (Reuters): About 50 Israeli armoured vehicles raided a Palestinian refugee camp today, one day after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon raised hopes for an end to 32 months of violence by accepting a US-backed peace “road map”.

Political sources said Sharon was likely to win Cabinet approval for the plan, perhaps as early as tomorrow, despite the opposition of far-Right ministers to its call for Palestinian statehood.

In Tulkarm refugee camp in the West Bank, witnesses said soldiers searched house-to-house for militants, detaining four Palestinian suspects and two American members of the non-violent, pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement (ISM).

Security sources said the two US nationals could be deported. ISM volunteers often place themselves between soldiers and Palestinians at flashpoints in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

There were no reports of clashes or casualties in the operation that began at dawn and followed suicide bombings in Israel that killed 10 people over the past week. But in the northern Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian gunmen during an exchange of fire near the border fence with Israel, a military spokeswoman said.

After weeks of hesitation, Sharon's office announced yesterday his acceptance of the road map after Washington said it would address Israel’s reservations about the plan as it was being implemented.

The announcement said Sharon would seek his Cabinet’s approval of the proposal, opening the way for a possible West Asia summit with US President George W. Bush and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. The Cabinet next meets tomorrow.

The Palestinians back the plan, drafted by the US, EU, UN and Russia. It sets out reciprocal steps leading to a Palestinian state by 2005 and a freeze on Jewish settlement expansion on land Israel occupied in the 1967 West Asia war. Israel has been reluctant to implement the plan until the Palestinians rein in militant groups behind suicide bombings.

Bush said soon after Israel’s announcement that he would consider calling a summit with Sharon and Abbas.

He did not say where or when they might meet but US officials said the talks could take place in early June in Geneva or at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The road map is the only peace initiative on offer nearly 32 months after the Palestinians began their revolt for statehood.

Israel has expressed 10 to 15 reservations about the plan, including about a “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to what is now the Jewish state.

Sharon had sought a public US commitment to address those concerns. US secretary of state Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice made that commitment, saying the reservations would be addressed as the plan is implemented.

But Powell ruled out amending the road map, hoping to satisfy the Palestinians. They welcomed Sharon’s announcement but cautioned that the plan must not be changed.

Russia welcomed Israel’s acceptance of the road map today, saying Moscow and the plan’s other international sponsors would have to work closely to push the peace process forward.

“Moscow welcomes the emerging progress, and hopes the Israeli Cabinet will approve the road map,” foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said in a statement. “In this context, we appreciate the US administration’s efforts.”

Yakovenko said Palestinian backing for the process meant that a “real possibility had appeared to overcome the current deadlock”.

“Naturally, moving toward peace will require close coordination within the framework of the four (mediators), which must remain the mechanism for helping the sides overcome confrontation and facilitating the political process.”

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