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Baker tries to move Mubarak

FOR THE second day running yesterday, Cairo was the focus of the latest round of Middle East diplomacy. The US Secretary of State, James Baker, flew to Egypt to persuade President Hosni Mubarak that Israel was serious about peace with its Arab enemies.

The visit followed on the heels of the summit on Tuesday in Cairo between Mr Mubarak and the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, when Mr Rabin attempted in person to persuade Mr Mubarak that his government was committed to progress.

That Mr Mubarak is being given a key role in the latest flurry of activity is important not so much because of Egyptian-Israeli relations - the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1979 - but for the role that both the US and Israel believe Egypt might be able to play in persuading other Arab leaders to trust the new Israeli Prime Minister, who is offering a partial freeze on Jewish settlements as a first step towards negotiating Palestinian autonomy.

Yesterday, Mr Baker said Egypt had 'always been an important player in the peace process' and he went out of his way to impress Mr Mubarak with his positive impressions of Mr Rabin and of the intentions of his government, particularly in relation to settlements. Mr Baker visited Jerusalem earlier this week on the first leg of a Middle East tour which takes him to Amman, Damascus, Cairo and Riyadh.

He told Mr Mubarak he had been 'very satisfied' with the philosophy of the new Israeli government. In particular Mr Baker said that Israel had a new approach to the issue of settlements which 'pleases the United States'. He added that he was convinced 'there will be substantial and severe limitations and curtailment of settlement activity'.

It is too early to say whether Mr Baker's mission as Israel's messenger, spreading Mr Rabin's word of goodwill to the Arabs, is beginning to break the ice. Tomorrow, all Arab leaders involved in the talks meet to start to co- ordinate their reaction to Mr Rabin's policies.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Israel's Housing Ministry, which last week froze approval of new building contracts, ordered a new interim restraint yesterday, blocking work on settlement contracts which had not yet begun.

TUNIS - The leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) ended a three-day strategy meeting yesterday, saying Israel's plans to reduce settlement activity in the occupied territories were not enough and calling for a halt to all settlements, Reuter reports.