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Israel threatens more strikes on ‘ticking bombs’

Jerusalem, June 22 (Reuters): Israel today warned of more attacks on Palestinians it brands “ticking bombs” after killing a senior Hamas militant just before an international meeting to rescue a stumbling peace plan.

US secretary of state Colin Powell, issuing an apparent rebuke to Israel, said the killing of Abdullah Kawasme in the West Bank city of Hebron by undercover army commandos on Saturday could impede progress on the “road map” to peace.

But Palestinian officials said a meeting they had today with new US envoy John Wolf, assigned to shepherd steps to implement the road map, raised prospects for a security deal with Israel important to the plan’s first stages. A senior Palestinian official said the talks focused on practicalities of Israel pulling troops back from the Gaza Strip and handing over control to Palestinian Authority security forces, which Israel expects would then crack down on militants.

“The meeting was positive and serious. They will probably meet tonight to put the finishing touches on an agreement,” he said, adding that it could help lead to a ceasefire by militants, although Kawasme’s killing was not helpful.

Diplomats at a meeting in Jordan of the peace-making international “Quartet” attended by Powell said Israel was considering easing its demand for full control of Gaza’s main north-south road in favour of joint patrols with Palestinians.

The road, used by Jewish settlers whom militants have targeted, has been the key sticking point in the security talks.

The military wing of Hamas, Islamists bent on destroying Israel, vowed “thundering retaliation” for Kawasme’s death and said Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas's call for a truce with Israel was impossible while its men were being killed.

Ismail Abu Shanab, a Hamas political official, told the US television network ABC Israel must halt “track-and-kill” operations against militants and quit Gaza to enable a truce.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the weekly meeting of his Right-wing Cabinet that the government had demanded Palestinians “act in the most serious manner against terrorist organisations”. If they do not, he said, “we will continue our activities to provide security” for Israelis. Cabinet minister Tzipi Livni said this would include striking “ticking-bomb” militants planning attacks.

Tit-for-tat violence, including Israeli strikes against militants that have also killed civilians, has quickly frayed the peace plan affirmed by Abbas and Sharon at a June 4 summit with President George W. Bush.

The Quartet that drafted the peace framework — the US, Russia, the EU and the UN — discussed in Jordan ways to salvage the plan, which envisages a Palestinian state by 2005 on land Israel captured in a 1967 war.

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