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Saturday, 16 March, 2002, 23:56 GMT
Mid-East ceasefire talks on hold
Israel armoured personnel carriers in Bethlehem
The Palestinians demand the withdrawal of all Israeli tanks
Senior Israeli and Palestinian officials will not hold talks on Sunday, despite what looked like a potential breakthrough earlier on Saturday evening.

An Israeli Government statement had earlier said a three-way meeting would be held between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, an unnamed senior Palestinian official and US Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni, in an effort to reach a ceasefire.

Anthony Zinni, right, with top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat
Anthony Zinni, right, met with top Palestinian negotiators

But Israel later said that "no decision has been made regarding the holding of a meeting", after the Palestinians demanded that the Israelis pulled their all their forces out of the areas they occupied in the last 18 months.

The Israeli Government says the Mr Sharon is still willing to meet Palestinian officials, but no date has yet been set.

"Our understanding is that... [we need] to have a time-line, mechanisms with monitors on the ground and we hope that above anything else, the Israeli army will complete the withdrawal from all areas they occupy," said the leader of the Palestinian negotiating team, Saeb Erekat.

The BBC's Richard Lister in Jerusalem says that the test for the US envoy now is whether he can bridge these substantial gaps and ensure that ceasefire talks do get under way soon.

Earlier on Saturday - the third day of his mission - General Zinni met senior Palestinian officials, including Mr Erekat and Deputy Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

The recent upsurge in violence has abated, although there were exchanges of gunfire on Saturday between Palestinians and Israeli troops in the West Bank town of Hebron.

There were no reports of casualties.

Peres optimistic

Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, told a news conference on Saturday that there would be no further incursions by Israeli forces into Palestinian controlled areas.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Sharon: Willing to meet Palestinian officials
He added that the demolition of houses belonging to Palestinian militants would also cease.

He said he was confident about the chances of winning a ceasefire.

To coincide with General Zinni's visit, Israeli forces withdrew from key areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that they had occupied in the army's biggest ground operation for 20 years.

But the army remains in parts of Bethlehem and is still surrounding some other Palestinian areas.

Enlarge image Enlarge map
Map of the West Bank and Gaza
Palestinians dismissed the partial withdrawal as a political trick.

In Barcelona, European Union leaders called for urgent implementation of all UN resolutions on the Middle East, and for immediate and effective action by both sides to stop the bloodshed.

"[The EU supports] the creation of a democratic, viable and independent Palestinian state, bringing to an end the occupation of territories which began in 1967," Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique told reporters after a working dinner on Friday evening.

The BBC's Richard Lister
"General Zinni is trying to keep up the momentum for peace"
Writer on Middle East politics Dilip Hiro
"Sharon ...will under no circumstances agree to a complete withdrawal"
See also:

15 Mar 02 | Middle East
Deaths overshadow Zinni mission
12 Mar 02 | Middle East
Ramallah operation ups stakes
12 Mar 02 | Middle East
Annan appeal brings mixed response
12 Mar 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Israel goes in hard
12 Mar 02 | Middle East
Six Israelis killed in gun attack
12 Mar 02 | Middle East
Controversy over 'execution' pictures
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