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Sunday, 6 January, 2002, 01:02 GMT
US envoy optimistic over Mid-East talks
Anthony Zinni (left) and Yasser Arafat
Zinni asked Arafat about the alleged arms shipment
US envoy Anthony Zinni says he is optimistic of guiding Israelis and Palestinians towards a truce, after Israel said it would ease its blockade of Palestinian areas and the Palestinian continued clampdown on militants.

"I am hopeful and encouraged, and think it's going to take co-operation from both sides and deep commitment to get the meaningful ceasefire we need to get this process on track," Mr Zinni said after a meeting with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

It's going to take co-operation from both sides and deep commitment to get the meaningful ceasefire we need to get this process on track

US envoy Anthony Zinni
Israeli-Palestinian security talks chaired by Mr Zinni are due to resume for the first time in a month on Sunday. They will coincide with the arrival of European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana who hopes to build on Mr Zinni's efforts.

Mr Zinni's mission has been overshadowed recriminations between the two sides over an alleged shipment of Iranian-made missiles and other weapons to the Palestinian Authority.

Israel said its commandos had intercepted the 50-tonne shipment on Friday in the Red Sea, adding that the captain and some of the crew were members of the Palestinian naval police.

A photo of the confiscated weapons provided by Israel
The Palestinians say the claims are "propaganda"
Palestinian officials deny the allegations, accusing Israel of trying to sabotage Mr Zinni's attempts to broker a truce after 15 months of violence that has left more than 1,000 dead.

A US official in Washington raised the possibility that the shipment had been intended for an Islamic militant group like Hamas, or the Lebanese Hezbollah, rather than the PA.

"That's been the pattern in the past when ships like this have been seized," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Iran denies it has any connection with the shipment.

US mediation

Mr Zinni ends his four-day mission on Monday, and Palestinian officials said he was expected to return to the region on 18 January to evaluate progress.

Israel eased restrictions before Mr Zinni's arrival in the region on Thursday, pulling back tanks from some Palestinian areas and opening some roads in the West Bank.

In Bethlehem in the West Bank, Palestinian security officials said they had arrested a leading activist in the militant Islamic Jihad group, Fawaz Khlayef, who had been involved in shooting attacks on Israelis, the officials said.

Palestinians pass Israeli checkpoint in Ramallah
Israel has eased some travel restrictions on Palestinians
Mr Zinni is trying to move both sides towards accepting a formal truce, the details of which were outlined last year by the head of the US Central Intelligence Agency, George Tenet.

Under this plan, Israel would withdraw its troops from Palestinian areas to positions they held before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000, and the Palestinian security forces would make an all-out effort to prevent attacks on Israelis by Palestinian militants.

With a truce in place, the two sides would then implement the proposals of an international commission headed by former US Senator George Mitchell.

Israel would freeze all settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza, while the Palestinians would dismantle militant groups.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - who also met Mr Zinni on Friday - has said he will only commit himself to the truce deal once there has been a week of complete calm.

There has been a sharp drop in violence since Mr Arafat renewed his commitment to a ceasefire on 16 December, although there has been sporadic violence.

The BBC's Caroline Hawley
"There are still many questions left unanswered"
See also:

05 Jan 02 | Middle East
Arms row mars peace mission
30 Dec 01 | Middle East
Israel sees peace hope
15 Dec 01 | Middle East
US blocks Mid-East observers
28 Nov 01 | Middle East
US Mid-East envoy calls for change
08 May 01 | Middle East
Arms haul sparks new fears
29 Nov 01 | key documents
The Mitchell report
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