Abbas holds out for 'useful' Sharon talks

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Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, told his new coalition cabinet yesterday after congratulating Mahmoud Abbas on his election victory that he expected to meet the Palestinian President "in the near future".

Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, told his new coalition cabinet yesterday after congratulating Mahmoud Abbas on his election victory that he expected to meet the Palestinian President "in the near future".

In the first tentative sign of resumed contact between the two sides in the conflict, Mr Sharon telephoned Mr Abbas. An Israeli statement said that in the call, which lasted no more than 10 minutes, Mr Sharon congratulated the Palestinian leader on his personal achievement and his victory in the elections and wished him luck.

Although substantive issues were not apparently discussed during the courtesy call, the statement said that the two men would continue talking. Mr Sharon told the cabinet, which now includes a Labour Party which is keen to restart the peace process, that he would meet Mr Abbas in talks which would concentrate on security, including efforts to "halt terrorism". Mr Abbas said last week that he was optimistic of securing a ceasefire by the armed factions. The talks are also likely to focus on possible co-operation over Mr Sharon's plan to withdraw more than 7,500 settlers from Gaza - still under challenge because of the fragility of his new coalition devised to bypass the fierce opposition from the Israeli right, including at least 13 members of his own ruling Likud party.

Ahmad Qureia, whom Mr Abbas said before last Sunday's presidential election that he would be asking to stay on as Prime Minister, said that plans for a meeting were still at an early stage. He added: "When the right time comes, we will go for a well-prepared meeting. We will not go just for a meeting, but for a useful one."

The call followed a declaration by Mr Abbas on Monday evening that he hoped both sides could return to the negotiating table. "We extend our hands to our neighbours," he said. "We are ready for peace, peace based on justice. We hope that their response will be positive."

The previous meeting between the two leaders was in August 2003 during Mr Abbas's brief term as Prime Minister under Yasser Arafat, whom Mr Sharon repeatedly blamed for fomenting violence and refused to consider as a potential "partner" for peace talks.

Hamas militants fired at least five mortars at Jewish settlements in Gaza and one rocket at the Israeli border town of Sderot yesterday, risking Israeli reprisals which could make Mr Abbas's task in seeking a ceasefire even more difficult. Rescue services in Sderot said there had been no injuries but several buildings and cars had been damaged.

In a development which will be seen as indicating a continuing shake-up of the security services promised by Mr Abbas, Jibril Rajoub, who had been security adviser to the late Mr Arafat for the last year of his presidency, resigned. Mr Rajoub had been appointed in 2003 after being dismissed as the powerful chief of the Preventative Security Service. In terms which implied he was not ruling out some future role under Mr Abbas, Mr Rajoub said he was leaving to allow the new Palestinian President to make his own appointments.

Menachem Mazuz, the Israeli Attorney General, will visit southern Gaza in the next few weeks to review the legality and impact of highly controversial proposals by the army to demolish between 200 and 3,000 houses in the already conflict-ravaged border town of Rafah to make way for a potentially huge trench to prevent weapons smuggling through tunnels from Egypt.

Officials admitted that the plans for Rafah were not fixed and that a number of options were being considered. The Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat called the trench "a catastrophe and a disaster for the Palestinian people".

* An Israeli soldier was jailed last September for five months for lying as part of a cover-up over the fatal shooting of the British International Solidarity Movement activist Tom Hurndall in Gaza in 2003, it was confirmed yesterday Another Israeli soldier is standing trial for the shooting.

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