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Bush mission advances after Arab summit

Sharm El-Sheikh (Egypt), June 3 (Reuters): President George W. Bush launched the most ambitious West Asian peace mission in two years today and said a summit with Arab leaders had advanced the “road map” to peace.

“We have made progress on a broad agenda,” he said after the summit hosted by Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where the US President won an Arab vow to try to choke funding to “terrorist groups”. “We are determined to keep moving forward,” said Bush, who moves straight on to a landmark summit with the Israeli and Palestinian premiers tomorrow.

Ahead of that meeting, Israel freed around 100 prisoners in a goodwill gesture the Palestinians branded purely cosmetic. And despite the positive moves, violence raged on.

In an outdoor address, the sea behind him and Mubarak by his side, Bush hailed a pledge by five Arab leaders to crack down on violence and said if all sides met their obligations, progress could be made to Palestinian statehood and a secure Israel. “Today I am pleased to stand with leaders of the Arab world who are committed to these principles,” he said.

Amid tight security, Bush met Mubarak before they both joined Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, Jordan’s King Abdullah, Bahrain’s King Hamad and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, making his debut on the international stage.

Syria and Lebanon, two front-line Arab states that have yet to make peace with Israel, were absent.

Mubarak, reading a statement from Arab leaders, said Arabs welcomed the road map and Bush’s commitment, and vowed to cut off funding to “terrorist groups” as Washington wants. “We will use the full force of the law to stop funds getting to illegal organisations including terrorist groups,” he said.

In a conciliatory gesture to his Arab hosts Bush said before the talks that Israel had to deal with Jewish settlements. “Israel must make sure there is a continuous territory that the Palestinians can call home,” he said.

Freezing settlement is central to the road map drafted by the US, UN, EU and Russia.

US hopes for progress have been buoyed by word Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is to announce plans to uproot some rogue Jewish settler outposts, though it is unclear how many. The international community considers the settlements illegal, although Israel disputes this. A Sharon aide said Bush’s remarks were no surprise. “All this will be discussed at tomorrow’s meeting,” he said.

Bush, meeting Abbas for the first time, wants support for the road map, the farthest-reaching peace plan of Bush’s two-and-a-half years in office. It outlines reciprocal steps by Palestinians and Israelis leading to a Palestinian state by 2005.

Palestinian labour minister Ghassan Al-Khatib played down the summit. “There were no (concrete) results,” he said. Syria criticised the latest US initiative as a bid to end Palestinian resistance against occupation and accused Washington of turning a blind eye to Israeli “crimes”.

Bush has refused to meet veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

, still influential among Palestinians.

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