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Last Updated: Monday, 15 November, 2004, 19:27 GMT
Powell 'set for West Bank talks'
US Secretary of State Colin Powell
Powell's last trip to the West Bank was in mid-2003
A senior Palestinian official has said that US Secretary of State Colin Powell is to visit the West Bank next week.

The announcement by Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath came hours before news that Mr Powell is to leave his job.

US officials indicated that Mr Powell was expected to attend a conference on the Iraq war in Egypt and may visit the West Bank afterwards, Reuters reports.

Mr Powell said he wanted to explore the "new opportunities" in the Middle East before leaving office.

Mr Shaath said Mr Powell would visit the region to discuss elections for a successor to Yasser Arafat.

"The purpose of the visit is to activate the peace process that Mr Bush and Mr Blair have said is their goal," Mr Shaath said.

The US State Department said Mr Powell did intend to confer with the new Palestinian leadership, but said no date had been set.

Mr Powell told a news conference that he would be working hard "until the very, very end" and there was much he wanted to do before leaving office.

"Hopefully over the next few weeks, I'll be able to see ho much potential there is in this new opportunity in the Middle East with the passing of Chairman Arafat."

Speaking alongside UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in Washington last week, US President George W Bush said the US would help the Palestinians hold democratic elections to choose a successor to Yasser Arafat.

He also said a Middle East peace could be achieved in four years.

Election assistance

Mr Powell's visit to the West Bank - which Mr Shaath said was scheduled for 23 November - would be likely to include talks on arrangements to ensure elections take place and are judged free and fair.

A portion of $75m of US aid currently earmarked for Palestinian non-governmental organisations could be used for election planning, Reuters news agency reported.

Aid could also be provided direct to the Palestinian Authority, despite existing congressional restrictions.

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat told CNN the US president must put pressure on Israel not to interfere with the election.

"He [Bush] needs to get the army of Israel out and send civilian observers in order to see true, genuine, fair elections taking place," Mr Erekat said.

Israeli troops operate checkpoints that restrict the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, currently in the US, is due to hold talks with Mr Powell this week.

In a speech to a US Jewish audience on Sunday evening, Mr Shalom said Israel might co-ordinate its planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip with the Palestinians if an elected leadership took steps against militant groups.

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