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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 June, 2003, 21:49 GMT 22:49 UK
US steps up pressure for peace
US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (left) and Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen in West Bank town of Jericho
Ms Rice's talks with Abu Mazen were described as "very positive"
US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice has held talks with Palestinian officials amid signs of progress on the US-backed Middle East peace plan known as the roadmap.

Ms Rice's first stop was in the West Bank town of Jericho, where she held a four-hour meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

The talks came amid expectations that the main Palestinian militant groups are about to formally announce a three-month halt to attacks on Israel.

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Israel has signalled its willingness to comply with the initial stages of the roadmap by agreeing in principle to a military withdrawal from Bethlehem and parts of the northern Gaza Strip.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the meeting between Abu Mazen and Ms Rice was "very positive," with American officials showing an "understanding" of Palestinian demands.

Ms Rice is to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other officials on Sunday.

Israel could start a military withdrawal on Monday, while Palestinian militants have agreed in principle to declare a truce.

A leader of the militant Islamic Jihad group joined Hamas on Saturday in saying it had accepted a conditional ceasefire for three months.

Ms Rice's visit is designed to keep up pressure on the two sides to move towards a peaceful settlement.

Conditions for peace

The latest developments have breathed new life into the roadmap, which was thrown off course by an upsurge of violence soon after Israel and the Palestinians signed up to the process on 4 June.

ROADMAP MAIN POINTS
Phase 1 (to May 2003): End to Palestinian violence; Palestinian political reform; Israeli withdrawal and freeze on settlement expansion; Palestinian elections
Phase 2: (June-Dec 2003) Creation of an independent Palestinian state; international conference and international monitoring of compliance with roadmap
Phase 3 (2004-2005): Second international conference; permanent status agreement and end of conflict; agreement on final borders, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements; Arab states to agree to peace deals with Israel

Under the plan, the Palestinians must first halt attacks on Israelis and Israel must withdraw from Palestinian areas it has reoccupied since the intifada (uprising) erupted 33 months ago.

The BBC's Barbara Plett in Jerusalem says Washington, like Israel, wants the Palestinian Authority to dismantle the militant groups, not sign agreements with them. But in forthcoming meetings, Ms Rice may press the Israelis to give the arrangement a chance, our correspondent says.

Israeli officials have said they will give the Palestinian Authority room to act, but will intervene if it fails to stop attacks.

The United States has welcomed the Gaza Strip withdrawal deal as "a first significant joint step" towards implementing the roadmap.

"This is very positive," said US Secretary of State Colin Powell. "It reflects the kind of movement that the president and the other leaders called for," he said.

Under the deal, Palestinian security forces will move into areas evacuated by Israeli troops with the aim of preventing militants there from launching attacks.

The same arrangement is expected to apply to Bethlehem.

But Israeli troops will continue to be deployed around Jewish settlements in Gaza, where buffer zones will be set up between Israeli and Palestinian forces.




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The BBC's James Reynolds
"Hamas and Islamic Jihad are getting ready to announce their own ceasefire"



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