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U.S. Envoy Returns to Mideast During Lull

January 04, 2002|From Associated Press

JERUSALEM — With Mideast violence at its lowest level in 15 months, U.S. envoy Anthony C. Zinni returned Thursday hoping to prod Israelis and Palestinians into moving ahead with a truce plan both sides accepted in principle last year.

Israel pulled back tanks and troops Thursday from half a dozen Palestinian towns in the West Bank, a move long sought by Palestinians who have had their movements sharply curtailed.

But Israeli troops also seized five suspected militants in Palestinian areas, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government again demanded that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat make more arrests.

The sharp decline in fighting over the past three weeks has raised the possibility that a cease-fire could finally take hold, ending the bloodletting that has claimed over 1,000 lives since September 2000. But Zinni, whose previous mission collapsed in mid-December amid a surge in violence, faces a complicated task.

Sharon demands a week of complete calm before going ahead with the cease-fire plan drafted in June by CIA chief George J. Tenet. No Israeli has been killed by a Palestinian in three weeks, but Israel says there are daily incidents that must stop entirely.

The Palestinian leadership says it has done its part to reduce violence and wants a firm timetable for implementation of the truce.

"I reconfirm in front of you our full commitment to the peace process and the cease-fire decision," Arafat told reporters at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah.

Israel's military actions Thursday appeared to send a double-edged message that it was willing to ease the tough restrictions imposed on the Palestinians but that it was also demanding further crackdowns against suspected Palestinian militants.

Israeli tanks and troops withdrew from six West Bank towns, although an armored personnel carrier remained in a northern neighborhood of Ramallah that overlooks Arafat's office.

Palestinians called the Israeli moves cosmetic.

Zinni, a retired Marine Corps general, is expected to remain in the region four days.

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