Ross Launches New Mideast Peace Mission as Violence Flares Again
US Middle East troubleshooter Dennis Ross met Palestinian President Yasser Arafat Tuesday on his latest mission to salvage peace talks after the worst outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence in several years.
"We deeply regret the loss of life. There have been too many victims and too much violence," Ross told reporters after a two-hour meeting with Arafat.
"What we are focused on is trying to end the pain and end the sorrow of the conflict," Ross said, adding that both sides were acting to restore calm after five straight days of rioting.
As they met, at least 27 people were wounded in fighting between Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers in the West Bank towns of Bethlehem, Hebron and al-Bireh, a town near Ramallah.
The wounded included three Palestinians hit by live bullets fired by Israeli soldiers in al-Bireh, the site of a raging gun-battle on Monday, and one Israeli civilian who was hit in Bethlehem.
Security was stepped up on major roads, around Jewish settlements and military installations in the West Bank in readiness for a further explosion of violence or possible terror attacks, army officials said.
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said the Palestinian Authority was trying to prevent a replay of Monday's incidents, adding, "I hope they succeed."
Three Palestinians were killed in Monday's bloody unrest and hundreds more wounded, among them 15 Israeli soldiers, following demonstrations in support of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and to remember al-Nakba or the "catastrophe" surrounding the creation of Israel 52 years ago.
One of the victims from Monday's clashes, a member of the Palestinian security forces, was buried in his home village near Nablus Tuesday, following the funerals of two other men late Monday night.
Ross is also expected to meet Prime Minister Ehud Barak during his mission, intended to focus on negotiations to reach a final peace accord by September after the two sides missed a second deadline this month for a framework pact.
Earlier this month, Ross mediated a round of talks in the Red Sea resort of Eilat that ended in a dispute over Israeli maps proposing a divided Palestinian state on some two-thirds of the occupied territories.
"There are contacts, there are discussions continuing," Arafat's top aide Nabil Abu Rudeina said. "The Americans are exerting all possible efforts. However the gaps are still wide and we are hoping in the coming weeks we will see results."
The two sides have to bridge gaping differences over the core issues of Jerusalem, borders of a future Palestinian state, the right of return of refugees and Jewish settlements.
Ross's visit precedes a trip to Washington by Barak next week for talks with US President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, as Israeli and Palestinian officials conduct a secret second channel of negotiations aimed at a breakthrough in peacemaking.
On the Stockholm talks, Ross would only say that negotiations were going on. "What is important is not where and whom but resolving these issues."
Israel's Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben Ami confirmed that he was taking part in the Stockholm track, saying: "We cannot rule out reaching an accord on almost all the issues.
Ben-Ami, was tight-lipped in a radio interview on Tuesday on whether progress had been made.
"I believe an agreement is not impossible," he was quoted by Reuters as saying.
Ross said there would be discussions on the release of prisoners, a sensitive issue for Palestinians who regard the some 1,600 held in Israeli jails as political prisoners.
Meanwhile, Sneh confirmed that the transfer of three villages near Jerusalem to full Palestinian control, decided by the government and parliament Monday in the face of a threatened coalition revolt, was being put on hold until the situation in the territories became clear.
Barak said the decision to hand over the villages, including Abu Dis -- which Israel has touted as a future Palestinian capital -- was aimed at avoiding an "impasse and deterioration" in peace talks – (Several Sources)
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