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Palestine PM urges Israel: Follow the map

Jerusalem, May 28 (Reuters): Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas today said Israel should drop reservations on the US-backed “road map” for peace and embrace the plan as a historic opportunity to end nearly three years of bloodshed.

Laying out his negotiating stance in his first Israeli newspaper interview since taking office, Abbas also said his next round of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would probably take place tomorrow.

Their meeting would lay the groundwork for a three-way summit with US President George W. Bush next week.

“This is a historic opportunity to return to a track of normalcy,” Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, told the daily Haaretz. “We are saying to the Israelis: ’Follow the map and don’t waste time over details’.”

The plan would establish a Palestinian state by 2005. The Palestinians embraced it immediately. Israel followed suit reluctantly, after Washington agreed to address its reservations. The outline officially remains unchanged.

Abbas, who took office last month under a power-sharing deal with President Yasser Arafat, said: “We understood from the Americans that there are no changes in the road map.”

Washington moved to smooth the latest crease in the plan it authored with the UN, EU and Russia.

“As we move forward with implementation, we will address legitimate concerns of both sides regarding specific elements of the road map, fully and seriously,” said Paul Patin, spokesman for the US embassy in Tel Aviv.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Abbas said his talks with Sharon would focus on the “implementation of the road map, the steps expected from both sides reciprocally”.

They failed to make progress in their first meeting this month when each side demanded the other make the first move.

Israeli officials, who declined comment on Abbas’ published remarks, denied a date had been set for the next round of talks.

US President George W. Bush is expected to meet the two as early as June 5. Jordan said King Abdullah would sponsor the talks in the Red Sea port of Aqaba. A semi-official Egyptian newspaper said Egypt would host a summit between Bush and several Arab leaders on June 4 at Sharm el-Sheikh.

A major obstacle on the road map is Israel’s insistence it reserve the right to fight militants who have waged an uprising since September 2000 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — pending proof that the Palestinians can rein in violence as mandated.

Today, the Israeli army said it demolished the family homes of two suicide bombers in the West Bank — a standard reprisal — and arrested 16 suspected militants. Abbas said such Israeli actions hindered efforts to end violence.

“It is impossible to achieve 100 per cent success in a brief period. It is important that the Palestinians see change on the ground, like the cessation of (Israeli killings) and demolitions, and prisoners being freed,” Abbas told Haaretz.

Abbas dismissed talk of a possible temporary truce with militants, saying he was seeking “absolute calm”. But he was firm on the right of four million Palestinian war refugees and their descendants to return to lands now inside the Jewish state.

Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin said today Israel’s acceptance of the road map was “a trick” and warned that Washington could not be an honest peace broker.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who has called on militants to end the armed struggle against Israel, has accepted the road map, which calls for an end to 32 months of violence and the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005.

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