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West Asia rivals take a crack at truce
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (right) and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shake hands in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (AFP)

Sharm el-Sheikh (Egypt), Feb. 8 (Reuters): Israeli and Palestinian leaders declared a ceasefire today at a summit in Egypt aimed at ending more than four years of bloodshed.

Though militants waging an uprising since 2000 said they were not bound by the truce, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hailed a new chance for West Asia.

'The calm which will prevail in our lands starting from today is the beginning of a new era,' said Abbas at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh where Israeli and Palestinian flags flew side-by- side.

Sharon said:'We must all declare here today that violence will not prevail, violence will not be allowed to murder hope... For the first time in a long time there is hope in our region for a better future for us and our grandchildren.'

Abbas said the Palestinians agreed to stop violence while Sharon called a halt to military operations at the highest-level meeting since the start of the Palestinian 'Intifada'.

The gestures reflected a dramatic brightening of prospects for West Asia peacemaking since the November death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the rise of Abbas to succeed him on a platform of non-violent struggle. Reinforcing the sense of optimism, Egypt said that both it and Jordan would return ambassadors to the Jewish state for the first time since the start of the uprising.

Although no formal ceasefire was signed at the summit, it was widely seen as a step back towards negotiations on a US-backed 'road map' for a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

But Islamic militants behind suicide bombings, rocket attacks and shootings said they were not bound by Abbas' ceasefire, though they would continue to follow a de facto truce at his behest.

'The announcement... of a ceasefire expresses the position only of the Palestinian authority,' said Mushir al-Masri of Hamas, which is committed to destroying Israel.

The two sides also remain far apart on issues that led to the collapse of talks for a Palestinian state on land occupied by Israel in the 1967 war ' like borders, and whether Palestinian refugees get a 'right to return' to land in what is now Israel.

Some 3,350 Palestinians and 970 Israelis have been killed since September 2000. The summit followed a visit to the region by US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice that demonstrated a new US commitment to peace efforts.

'We know that West Asia still has a long way to go, but I have to say that in my meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Sharon and President Abbas, I saw that these leaders have understood that it is time to move ahead,' Rice said.

Sharon's office said he had invited Abbas to a meeting at his ranch in Israel. Palestinian officials said Abbas accepted and that further talks could be held in the West Bank. As goodwill gestures, Israel has agreed to free 900 out of 8,000 Palestinian prisoners, pull back troops from five cities and end assassinations of top militants.

Abbas would rather co-opt the militants than crush them, but his foreign minister Nabil Shaath said: 'From now on, any violation of the truce will be a violation of the national commitment and will have to be dealt with as such.' Shaath said he would immediately take the message to Syria, where Islamic factions have offices and which is accused by Israel of fomenting violence.

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