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Israel to curb ‘track-and-kill’ operations

Jerusalem, June 18 (Reuters): Israel has agreed to curb its “track-and-kill” operations against Palestinian militants in a deal struck with US officials to help them salvage a new peace plan torn by violence, security sources said today.

After more than 50 people were killed in a rash of attacks and counter-attacks last week, Washington demanded restraint to enable confidence-building steps required of each side by the “road map” plan launched by President George W. Bush on June 4.

Palestinian gunmen killed a young Israeli girl in a car near the West Bank afterwards last night, shortly after moderate Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas failed in his latest attempt to coax a ceasefire from 13 militant groups.

But hopes for the road map received a boost from Israel’s reported pledge to hit only militants seen as imminent attack threats and not top political figures, and from a decision by leading Islamic radical faction Hamas to revive separate truce talks with Abbas.

Right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sanctioned a helicopter missile strike on Hamas political leader Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi on June 10. Rantissi survived, but the assassination attempt plunged US-sponsored peace-making into turmoil. Hamas responded by killing 17 Jerusalem bus passengers in a suicide bombing.

Israel followed with more aerial assaults that killed some Hamas men but more bystanders. The violence boosted the powerful foes of negotiated compromise on both sides.

“We have undertaken to limit our track-and-kill operations to terrorists who are definitely ‘ticking bombs’. When it comes to more borderline cases such as Rantissi, who is in a command position, we will hold fire as much as possible,” one Israel security source said.

“This is to demonstrate to all sides that Israel is serious about giving the current round of talks the best chance of succeeding and forestall Palestinian charges of ‘sabotage’.”

Hamas official Ismail Haniyah scorned Israel’s gesture. “It indicates that they will continue assassinations. We reject any classification for who can be assassinated. Assassinations must stop and the occupiers must leave,” he said in Gaza City.

The deal was worked out by Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, in the latest of a series of trips to the White House to resolve disputes over a peace plan Sharon’s Right-wing Cabinet endorsed only under US pressure.

The road map envisages the creation of a Palestinian state in Israeli-occupied territory by 2005 after a dismantling of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and a Palestinian crackdown on militants committed to destroying Israel.

Sharon had ruled out progress on the plan unless Abbas could subdue Hamas, the group at the forefront of the 32-month-old uprising.

Hamas and close ally Islamic Jihad agreed to resume separate talks with Abbas later today. They had severed such contacts in protest at what they called “unacceptable concessions” by Abbas at a June 4 summit with Sharon and Bush.

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