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Ambush mars Israel’s Gaza road handover

Jerusalem, June 30 (Reuters): Palestinian militants shot dead a foreign worker in the West Bank today, shaking a fragile truce with Israel which their leaders announced under international pressure to shore up a US-backed peace plan.

A rebel group staged the ambush hours after Israeli forces left parts of the Gaza Strip, starting a disengagement process buoyed by the truce announcement by leading militant factions and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.

The attack, which killed a Bulgarian national, underlined the fragility of the latest peace moves after 33 months of violence, including several failed ceasefires.

But the Israeli and Palestinian Prime Ministers are expected to meet tomorrow and the US, the main West Asia peace broker, said it was encouraged by the progress made.

“There will be elements who will try to prevent peace,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in the US, urging the Palestinian authority to crack down on militants.

“We are entering a new era now hopefully and the President (George W. Bush) is encouraged by the work that the Israelis are doing together with the Palestinian authority leaders to promote the vision of peace, to make progress towards peace,” he said.

A local leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is affiliated to Fatah, said his armed group was behind the attack near the West Bank city of Jenin. “We are not committed to this so-called truce and we will continue to fight the (Jewish) settlers and the Israeli military inside the occupied territories,” the Brigades official said.

But underlining a lack of central command, the Gaza branch of the Brigades said it backed the truce. Israeli police said the slain man was a Bulgarian national in a road-working crew near the Jewish settlement of Shaked, 15 km south of Jenin. He was killed in an attack on a passing Israeli truck.

Reformist Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas will meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tomorrow to discuss further mutual confidence-building steps in the “road map” plan for peace despite the violence, Abbas’ spokesman said.

Sharon’s office declined immediate comment but a senior member of the government confirmed a meeting was planned.

Today’s attack raised doubt about a follow-up deal for an Israeli withdrawal from Bethlehem in the south of the territory reported by Palestinian security minister Mohammad Dahlan.

“The shooting underscores the problematic nature of the truce by Palestinians and the future of security arrangements in general, said Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon.

Dahlan said that Israel had agreed to leave Bethlehem on Wednesday and security officials from both sides would meet again tomorrow to work out the details.

Bethlehem, revered by Christians as Jesus’ birthplace, was among self-governing West Bank cities reoccupied by Israeli troops last year in response to suicide bombings in a militant uprising for statehood launched in September 2000. A senior Israeli security source said the deal on Bethlehem was “not final”. Israel agreed earlier in principle to withdraw from Bethlehem as a test case for a wider handover of the West Bank to Palestinian police.

The road map, drawn up by the US, Russia, the EU and UN and charting steps leading to a Palestinian state on Gaza and West Bank territory by 2005, requires Palestinian police to fill security gaps wherever Israel has withdrawn its forces by clamping down on militants.

Some 50 Israeli armoured vehicles left the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun after US presidential adviser Condoleezza Rice met both sides at the weekend to press them to begin implementing the road map after three weeks of bloodshed.

Today, Israeli forces withdrew from the territory’s main highway, ending a blockade of the economic lifeline dating from the outbreak of the uprising. Gaza police hoisted a Palestinian flag over a makeshift outpost along the 45-km highway. Palestinians regained control over the entire road except for one army checkpoint outside Kfar Darom, a Jewish settlement.

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