Christopher in cautious mood

JERUSALEM - The US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, spoke with extreme caution yesterday about peace prospects in the Middle East, writes Sarah Helm.

On arriving in Israel after brokering a ceasefire in south Lebanon, Mr Christopher said the region had experienced 'a difficult period of time marked by violence, and in some sense a loss of hope'. It was now 'important to try to restore momentum . . . for peace'.

More than 130 Lebanese were killed, 600 wounded and an estimated 250,000 forced to flee their homes during the seven-day Israeli bombardment of Lebanon which ended on Saturday. Israel has insisted that its action has served the peace process by weakening the Islamic militants of Hizbollah, and argued that Syria's involvement in arranging the ceasefire will facilitate peace talks with Damascus.

Mr Christopher was more circumspect yesterday: 'I expect no breakthroughs, no dramatic developments, but I hope we can establish a steady process for peace in this region.'

Palestinian leaders were extremely low-key in their assessment of the future after two hours of talks with Mr Christopher. The leader of the Palestinian delegation, Haidar Abdul Shafi, refused to meet him, saying he saw no prospect of any useful discussion.

However the Palestinian spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi, said attempts had been made in the discussions to be 'creative'. The Palestinians were now attempting to achieve an agreement with the Israelis to set out what form of 'independence' the Palestinians would achieve after the five-year interim period of autonomy currently under discussion.

One possibility, which the Palestinians are now prepared to consider, is to give full independence to the Gaza Strip and Jericho, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, ahead of independence for the whole of the occupied territories.

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