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Palestinian militants set for truce talks
( 2003-11-19 08:53) (Reuters)

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie and Egyptian brokers planned talks with militant factions in Gaza on Wednesday on reaching a truce with Israel, a deal that could boost efforts to revive a U.S.-backed peace plan.

"We will listen to Abu Ala (Qurie) and our Egyptian brothers," said Khaled al-Batesh, an Islamic Jihad leader.

Hamas, the other main Islamic militant group in the Palestinian areas, said late on Tuesday it agreed to talk with the three-member Egyptian delegation but had set no meeting with Qurie.

It will be the new prime minister's first attempt since his government took office last week to negotiate with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and some 13 other militant factions for an end to attacks on Israelis.

Militant leaders and spokesmen for the Palestinian Authority said any cease-fire deal would depend on obtaining prior guarantees from Israel that it would stop all attacks on Palestinians, including attempts to kill top militants.

An Egyptian-brokered truce that militant factions declared unilaterally in June collapsed two months later. Palestinians blamed its demise on continued army raids to capture militants. Israel said the deal was only camouflage for militants to rearm.

"We are not willing to repeat failed experiences. A truce is a commitment by both sides and does not work unilaterally," Mahmoud a-Zahar, a Hamas leader, told Reuters.

The Gaza meetings were scheduled after Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who brokered the June cease-fire, had talks with Qurie and President Yasser Arafat on Monday.

Israel has been pressing publicly for Qurie to crack down on militant groups in accordance with the peace "road map" that also calls for an end to violence and for the Israeli government to halt Jewish settlement expansion on occupied land.


Israeli officials have not rejected a truce outright, a position apparently in line with their declared intention to grant Qurie a grace period to help end a cycle of violence and enter into talks with Sharon on resuming peacemaking.

"If there will be quiet, there will be no military operations. But if there will be 'ticking bombs', if they will be on their way to carry out attacks, they will be stopped," a senior Israeli government official, referring to suicide bombers, said on the eve of the Gaza talks.

"If the Palestinian Authority doesn't stop them, we will."

In the latest violence, a Palestinian gunman who hid an automatic rifle in a prayer mat, shot dead two Israeli soldiers at a military roadblock near Bethlehem on Tuesday. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, groups dedicated to Israel's destruction, have killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide attacks since a Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.

Sharon, who appears to be heeding public pressure in Israel to break a peacemaking stalemate, has said he wants to meet Qurie soon to discuss how to move along the road map, which charts a course toward creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

In an apparent sweetener to Hamas ahead of the Gaza talks, the Palestinian Authority decided to release funds it had frozen in August in 39 bank accounts belonging to 12 Islamic charities in the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian official said.

Most of the charities are widely believed to be Hamas- sponsored. Their funds were frozen after a similar move by the United States against the assets of six Hamas figures following a Jerusalem suicide bombing that killed 23 people on August 19.

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