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Sharon, Abbas Expected to Meet in Egypt (REUTERS) By Dan Williams JERUSALEM, ISRAEL Additional reporting by Wafa Amr and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah 02/02/05 06:38 AM ET)Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=7510984 Reuters News Service Reuters News Service Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will meet new Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Egypt next week, the first summit between the sides in nearly four years of armed conflict, Sharon´s office said.

It said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak invited them to the meeting on Feb. 8 in the Sinai Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh. An Egyptian official said it was too early to comment. There was no initial comment from Palestinians.

The summit coincides with renewed Bush administration interest in the Middle East. New Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to meet both Sharon and Abbas separately during a trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah the day before.

A summit has been expected since Abbas, who was elected to succeed late Yasser Arafat last month, managed to coax a de-facto truce from militants waging an uprising in occupied territories. Israeli responded by curtailing military actions.

Sharon´s office said the invitation to the summit was delivered by Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, on a visit to Jerusalem on Wednesday.

Abbas, who wants calm to negotiate for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, has also accepted an invitation to pay an official visit to Iran, Palestinian officials said.

Iran is sworn to Israel´s destruction and has backed Palestinian militants, but has said in the past that it would not be against a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict if that is what Palestinians wanted.

Earlier, Israel said it might suspend its hunt for militants to boost Abbas, who has made resuming peace talks conditional on an end to Israeli army raids to kill and capture wanted gunmen whom he has persuaded to observe calm.

Abbas has also demanded the release of thousands of Palestinian security prisoners jailed in Israel.

Officials said Sharon would convene his inner cabinet on Thursday to weigh a halt to pursuit of wanted men before the summit with Abbas.

TEMPORARY HALT TO PURSUING MILITANTS

"We are talking not about granting clemency, but a freeze. A freeze means that everything is temporary," senior Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad told Israel´s Army Radio.

"That is, if they resume terror, and the murders and attacks continue, then we will resume vigorous action. Ultimately you need a reliable partner, otherwise there will be no solution."

Israeli media said the Shin Bet security service had balked at including militants wanted for deadly attacks in the freeze, which would be finalized in security talks with Palestinians.

"This issue was discussed with the Israeli side and we will hold another meeting tomorrow," Palestinian Negotiations Minister Saeb Erekat told Reuters in the West Bank.

Israel had earlier refused to back off its demand, enshrined in a U.S.-led peace "road map," for a Palestinian crackdown on factions spearheading a four-year-long uprising. Some of the fugitives are in groups sworn to Israel´s destruction.

But to avoid civil strife, Abbas aims to co-opt rather than try to disarm and jail militants. He has engaged them in truce talks that have secured a rare calm and prompted Israel to curtail missions to kill or capture militant leaders.

Abbas, whose rise has revived Middle East peace hopes buried by years of bloodshed, hopes the informal cease-fire would prevent chaos when Israel evacuates the occupied territory this summer under a Sharon plan to "disengage" from conflict.

Thousands of Palestinian security forces have fanned out in Gaza after an absence of years to stabilize the truce and Israel has raised the prospect of a follow-up pullback from cities in the occupied West Bank, a long-time Palestinian demand.

Rice, expected to promote the road map to Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza during her visit, on Tuesday held out the possibility of U.S. support to strengthen Palestinian security forces.

"Obviously the Palestinians are going to need help in terms of training and equipping their new security forces and I am sure that there will be ways that we might be involved in that," she told Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

"What I hope to do when I go there is to try and sustain -- help to sustain -- the momentum that they (Israelis and Palestinians) have clearly developed over the last several weeks." (Additional reporting by Wafa Amr and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah) (© Reuters 2005 02/02/05)


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