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US steps up bid to salvage W. Asia peace

Gaza, June 17 (Reuters): The US today stepped up efforts to salvage a “road map” to West Asia peace, announcing a new mediation mission by secretary of state Colin Powell amid fresh efforts to persuade militants to cease fire.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, following up an unsuccessful attempt by Egyptian envoys to press militants to call a truce with Israel, convened talks in Gaza City with representatives of 13 radical factions, including Hamas. A US official said Powell would arrive in Israel on Friday to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians.

“It is an important visit. I will certainly meet him, and the Prime Minister (Ariel Sharon) will meet him,” Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom said.

Powell was last in Israel and the Palestinian territories in May ahead of a June 4 summit in Aqaba, Jordan, in which US President George W. Bush, Abbas and Sharon affirmed the road map that envisages Palestinian statehood by 2005.

Since the three-way gathering, tit-for-tat Israeli-Palestinian attacks have killed more than 50 people and stymied US attempts to put the peace plan into motion. “We asked the Americans to take the lead in the peace process, and that is what we are getting,” Shalom told Israeli television. He said US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice was likely to follow Powell to Israel on June 29.

The US official said he had no details of Powell’s meetings, but the secretary of state was also widely expected to see Palestinian leaders in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The already-battered road map calls for confidence-building steps including a Palestinian crackdown on militants and an Israeli troop pullback to positions held before a Palestinian revolt began in 2000.

But Sharon has ruled out concessions unless Abbas subdued Hamas, casting doubt on any early move to pull Israeli troops out of the northern Gaza Strip and Bethlehem in the West Bank as security officials from both sides again discussed today.

Hamas has been at the forefront of suicide bombings that have killed scores of Israelis since the uprising for a Palestinian state erupted in September 2000. The moderate Abbas has instead sought a ceasefire deal with the militants, hoping to avoid confrontation that could lead to civil war.

The militants, however, have vowed to continue what they call resistance to Israeli occupation. Abbas’ aides say his case has been damaged by Israel’s continued “assassinations” of top militants in operations that have also killed bystanders.

In Gaza City, John Wolf, the U.S. envoy charged with implementing a peace plan largely dead in the water, spoke earlier in the day with Abbas and Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan.

After meeting Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Wolf told reporters he aimed to get each side to“implement commitments” made when both sides endorsed the road map at Aqaba.

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