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Israel to freeze hunt for militants as Palestinians target arms tunnels (AFP-FRANCE PRESSE) JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 02/02/05 5:31 AM ET)Source: http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=1515&ncid=1515&e=4&u=/afp/20050202/wl_mideast_afp/mideast_050202103122 AFP} Agence France Presse AFP} Agence France Presse Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel was set to freeze its pursuit of wanted militants as part of efforts to bolster new Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas who is struggling to prevent a tentative truce from unravelling.

As Palestinian security forces moved to uncover tunnels which have been used to smuggle in weapons to Gaza-based militants from Egypt, Israel indicated that members of the factions could soon rest easy from the threat of detention.

"We will give Abu Mazen (Abbas) a chance by suspending our operations against the wanted Palestinians, but this is a freeze not an amnesty," Amos Gilad, chief political advisor to Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, told army radio.

"If these wanted Palestinians start up their terrorist activities again, we will resume our offensive operations against them," added Gilad.

Gilad also expressed satisfaction at what he called the "dramatic fall" in attacks by Palestinian militants in the past few days after Abbas managed to persuade armed groups to observe a temporary "cooling down" period.

The Palestinian president is trying to translate the temporary truce into a formal ceasefire but wants Israel to reciprocate by ending its military activities in the occupied territories and starting to release prisoners.

A spate of Palestinian mortar attacks on Monday and Tuesday on Jewish settlements in the south of the Gaza Strip (news - web sites) has underlined the fragile nature of the current situation.

But Gilad said Israel had to be prepared to "take courageous measures to have a credible partner".

Determined not to allow the armed factions to target the Israeli settlers at will, Palestinian security forces launched an operation Wednesday to search out tunnels used to smuggle weapons and ammunition from under the border between Egypt and southern Gaza.

Around 100 members of the national security service were taking part in the operation around the flashpoint Rafah border crossing which has been the site of numerous similar operations by Israel in the past.

The forces discovered at least one tunnel in the morning and pledged to continue with the operation.

"Our national security started today closing tunnels on the border with Egypt," Musa Arafat, head of the national security service in the Gaza Strip, told AFP.

"This is in the framework of our moves to impose order on the ground and we will continue with this operation."

Some 4,000 Palestinians security officers were deployed throughout the Gaza Strip late last month with orders from Abbas to prevent attacks against Israeli targets.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is to visit the region early next week, said that Palestinian forces had made progress toward bolstering security but have a "long way to go" to be fully operational.

Rice also cited Abbas´s determination to rein in Islamic militants as an encouraging sign in the peace process.

"We´re clearly in a more hopeful set of circumstances than we were several months ago," Rice told AFP and the Reuters news agency.

"There are a lot of circumstances that are coming into place that should give us greater opportunity to progress back onto the roadmap and then hopefully on to a two-state solution."

The roadmap peace plan, which targets the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, has made next to no progress since its launch in June 2003 amid the continuing violence on both sides.

The chief US diplomat said the priority task was for the Palestinians to reform their security services and clamp down on anti-Israeli attacks by the militants.

"I think they have made some progress in this regard," she said. "It´s not perfect, but they have made some progress." (Copyright © 2005 Agence France Presse. 02/02/05)

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