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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 March, 2005, 22:42 GMT
Annan kicks off Mid-East mission
Kofi Annan and Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon (left) greeted Kofi Annan upon his arrival in Israel
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has said he is encouraged by peace efforts in the Middle East, as he began his first visit to the area in four years.

He met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and will meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Monday.

Earlier, Israel was reported to have decided to uproot 24 illegal settler outposts in the West Bank.

Israeli and Palestinian officials are to meet on Monday to discuss the delayed handover of West Bank towns.

Israel had agreed to cede control of the towns of Qalqilya, Tulkarm, Jericho, Bethlehem and Ramallah to Palestinian security forces at a meeting between Mr Abbas and Mr Sharon at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh last month.

However, the effort got bogged down last week in a disagreement over the dismantling of Israeli checkpoints outside the town of Jericho.

Abbas' demands

Arriving in Israel on Sunday, Mr Annan praised progress made at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit and said he looked forward to helping move the process forward.

Holocaust museum, Jerusalem
Jerusalem's Holocaust museum is set to be inaugurated on Tuesday

The UN along with Russia, the European Union and the United States, make up the quartet which drafted the "roadmap" peace plan outlining steps in the peace process.

Quartet members, including Mr Annan, met on the sidelines of a London conference on helping the Palestinians earlier this month.

Israel and the UN have had plenty of arguments in recent years, but Mr Sharon is keen to receive important visitors, says the BBC's James Reynolds in Jerusalem.

This is more important now as the Israeli leader gets ready to implement his disengagement plan to remove Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip, our correspondent says.

The pullout is due to start in July.

Mr Annan and others have welcomed the Israeli withdrawal, but Palestinians are sceptical of unilateral Israeli moves and want Israel to co-ordinate its withdrawal with them.

Mr Abbas will be keen to make this point to Mr Annan when he meets him on Monday, our correspondent says.

Mr Annan will also meet several world leaders this week as they attend the opening of a Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

Outpost promise

At a cabinet meeting on Sunday, the Israeli government appointed a committee to implement the findings of a report that accused it of funding illegal settlement activity.

The investigation, released on Wednesday, revealed that the government had secretly diverted millions of dollars of public money to consolidate illegal outposts on the West Bank.

Mr Sharon also said at Sunday's meeting that he would dismantle unauthorised outposts "as part of the Israeli commitment" to the roadmap.

The US-brokered roadmap for peace demands Israel destroy all West Bank settler outposts erected after March 2001.

According to Israeli radio, the government promised on Sunday to dismantle the 24 outposts that fall into this category.

The 24 are part of a group of 105 such structures that the government was accused of funding in the report, released on Wednesday.




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