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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 March 2008, 16:31 GMT
Abbas calls for Middle East truce
Condoleezza Rice and Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah (4 March 2008)
Ms Rice's trip to encourage talks has become a rescue mission

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has called for a truce between Israel and Palestinian militants before the Middle East peace talks can progress.

After meeting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Ramallah, he urged Israel to "halt its aggression so the necessary environment can be created"

Mr Abbas suspended the talks in protest at Israel's offensive in Gaza, in which more than 110 Palestinians have died.

Ms Rice insisted she still believed a peace deal could be achieved this year.

Before flying to the West Bank, Ms Rice held talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and other senior government officials.

At the meeting, Ms Rice called for militants in Gaza to halt rocket attacks on Israel, but also said she had told the Israelis to be aware of the effects of their military operations on innocent civilians.

She also stressed US commitment to the Annapolis process launched in November, which envisages an independent Palestinian state existing alongside Israel by the end of 2008.

'Shores of peace'

After meeting Ms Rice in Ramallah, Mr Abbas said peace and negotiations with Israel were his government's "strategic choice", but fell short of announcing a resumption of the process he suspended at the weekend.

No-one can justify the killing actions of the Israeli army over the past few days
Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian Authority President

"I call on the Israeli government to halt its aggression so the necessary environment can be created to make negotiations succeed, for us and for them, to reach the shores of peace in 2008," he told a news conference.

Mr Abbas said at least 20 children had been among the dozens of civilians killed in the Gaza Strip during Israel's recent five-day offensive, which was launched in an attempt to suppress rocket fire.

"No-one can justify the killing actions of the Israeli army over the past few days," he added.

"It has always been our conviction that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be achieved through violence or counter-violence, but through negotiations with terms of reference and international support."

Ms Rice said she was concerned about the recent violence, but urged the Palestinian Authority to resume talks with Israel.

Destroyed building in Rafah, Gaza (2 March 2008)
Rights groups have accused Israel of a disproportionate response

"What we are trying to achieve is not easy... but I do believe it can be done. We need very much for everybody to be focused on peace," she said.

"We look forward to the resumption of those negotiations as soon as possible."

Ms Rice warned that the "real threat" to peace process were "extremists" such as the Islamist movement Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in June, who she said opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Earlier, Hamas repeated its accusation that the US administration was giving Israel a green light to "massacre" Palestinians in Gaza.

"[Mr Abbas] must put an end to the negotiations and not to content himself with suspending them," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

Rocket barrage

Ms Rice will meet the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, in Jerusalem later and will hold further talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials on Wednesday before leaving the region.

The violence in Gaza has transformed Ms Rice's trip to the region. She had hoped to be nudging Israel and Mr Abbas towards progress in peace talks, but is now attempting a rescue mission to prevent them from completely collapsing.

We cannot afford this kind of extreme Islamic state controlled by Hamas
Tzipi Livni
Israeli Foreign Minister

Israel and the West have shunned Hamas over its refusal to recognise Israel and opposition to the peace process. Hamas ousted Mr Abbas's forces from Gaza in June, but he remains in control of Palestinian-administered parts of the West Bank.

Israel has now pulled its troops out of Gaza, but has warned of fresh action to prevent militants firing rockets at populated areas in southern Israel.

"We cannot afford this kind of extreme Islamic state controlled by Hamas," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told foreign diplomats on Tuesday.

Israel evacuated Gaza "not in order to come back, but we might find ourselves in a situation where we have no choice", she added.

On Tuesday, a rocket hit the nearby Israeli town of Sderot, causing extensive damage. Israeli forces launched several air and ground strikes on rocket squads and Hamas installations, killing at least two militants.

Three Israelis have died in recent days - a civilian killed by a rocket and two soldiers in the Gaza clashes.

Human rights groups say about half of the approximately 115 Palestinian fatalities have been civilians, and Israel has been accused of a disproportionate military response in breach of the laws of war.

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