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Sharon, Abbas to have first summit in Egypt - aides (REUTERS) By Mark Heinrich JERUSALEM, ISRAEL Additional reporting by Wafa Amr and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah, Dan Williams and Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem 02/02/05 07:26 PM ET)Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=7519280 Reuters News Service Reuters News Service Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Egypt next week, the first summit between the two sides in four years of armed conflict, officials said on Wednesday.

The talks, to be joined by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan´s King Abdullah, would aim to solidify a shaky new de facto ceasefire by setting in motion a peace process based on a U.S.- backed "road map" to a Palestinian state.

Sharon, who refused to meet Abbas´s late predecessor Yasser Arafat, and the Palestinian leader accepted invitations from Mubarak to meet at Sharm el-Sheikh on the Red Sea on Feb. 8.

In a pre-summit gesture, senior Israeli cabinet ministers will meet on Thursday to discuss scheduling a handover to Palestinians of West Bank cities reoccupied in recent conflict and freeing Palestinian prisoners, political sources said.

Mubarak´s office said it was time for a summit "in light of the delicacy of the stage the peace process is going through and in an endeavour to seize the auspicious opportunity to achieve tangible progress on the Palestinian track".

Egypt and Jordan signed peace deals with Israel in 1979 and 1994 respectively, the only Arab states to do so, and have acted as intermediaries during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A senior Israeli official said Sharon would be looking at the summit for Palestinian commitments to "prevent terrorism" by dissolving militant groups. Persuading them to observe a truce was not enough to launch road map talks, he said.

"They want to move fast on political issues but we will accept no leapfrogging over security commitments written into the first phase of the road map," he told Reuters.

Abbas, citing a concern not to stir civil unrest, has said he wants to co-opt rather than crush militants many Palestinians regard favourably as freedom fighters in occupied territories.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie said Abbas would seek an Israeli promise to stop all military action, free thousands of jailed militants, and to honour obligations in the road map, including a halt to expanding settlements in the West Bank.

ISRAEL MAY APPROVE HANDOVER OF WEST BANK CITIES

Israeli political sources said Sharon would convene his inner cabinet to approve a gradual handover to Palestinians of five West Bank cities recaptured in a 4-year-old uprising, and to release up to 500 Palestinian prisoners.

Israel said it might also suspend its hunt for militants to help Abbas, who aides say could command more obedience from gunmen if Israeli forces ended raids to kill or capture them.

Media reports said Israel expects Egypt and Jordan to announce plans at the summit to return ambassadors withdrawn during the uprising.

Abbas´s election last month to succeed Arafat, whom Israel and the United States shunned after branding him an obstacle to peace, has rekindled U.S. engagement in Middle East diplomacy.

Abbas has deployed Palestinian police on the Gaza Strip borders with Israel to prevent attacks on Israel. On Wednesday Palestinian police destroyed an arms-smuggling tunnel on Gaza´s border with Egypt as part of a campaign to halt violence between militants and Israeli troops, Palestinian officials said.

New U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to meet Sharon and Abbas separately during a trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah the day before the summit.

Sources in Washington said U.S. President George W. Bush would pledge some $350 million in aid to Palestinians in his State of the Union Address to help them prepare for Israel´s planned Gaza withdrawal.

But a stable, lasting peace may still be far off. Israel plans to quit Gaza this summer but vows to keep larger West Bank settlements. The two sides also remain poles apart on the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

Palestinians want all of the West Bank and Gaza for a state with East Jerusalem as their capital. Israel captured all three areas in the 1967 Middle East war.

Sharon and Abbas last met in Jordan in June 2003, during Abbas´s brief tenure as Arafat´s prime minister, along with Bush.

A summit has been mooted since Abbas cajoled militants into a tacit truce to help him embark on the road map. Israel replied by curtailing military action but has refused a formal truce.

Hair- trigger tensions simmer. Israeli soldiers killed an elderly Palestinian near the Gaza border and Palestinians fired mortars at Jewish settlements, causing damage but no casualties.

In an apparent Egyptian effort to formalise a ceasefire, leaders of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant factions were in Cairo for talks on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Wafa Amr and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah, Dan Williams and Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem) (© Reuters 2005 02/02/05)


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