Blair builds 'bridge' on road map to peace

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Tony Blair secured unequivocal endorsements from the Palestinian leadership and Israel yesterday for a US-backed conference that is designed to ensure the Palestinians enforce security and the other crucial measures to revive the moribund but internationally-agreed road map to peace.

Condoleezza Rice, the new US Secretary of State, will lead an international group of ministers who will attend the London conference in early March to mobilise practical, financial and political support for Palestinian reforms and decisive steps to eliminate militant violence.

Mr Blair, the first foreign head of government to visit the region since the death of Yasser Arafat, said the conference - to be attended by the new Palestinian leadership but not by Israel - would be a "bridge" to the road map, intended to lead to the creation of a full Palestinian state. "What is important is that we are able to make progress after months and years where there has been none," he said.

Mr Sharon repeated earlier promises that he was prepared to co-ordinate with the Palestinian leadership his "disengagement" plan to withdraw more than 7,000 settlers from Gaza. The London conference will partly focus on the Palestinian capacity after disengagement to impose security on Gaza, the scene of repeated incursions this year by the Israeli army to prevent rocket and mortar attacks on civilians in settlements and in homes inside Israel. Three Palestinians, including at least two gunmen, were killed yesterday after the army renewed operations in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis.

After meeting Mr Sharon, Mr Blair went on to Ramallah for talks with Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO chairman and probable successor to Yasser Arafat. Allaying earlier fears among some Israeli officials - and hopes among Palestinian ones - that the conference was intended to discuss the terms of a possible final settlement of the conflict, Mr Blair said that the London conference "is not and cannot be a substitute for the conferences under the road map but it can ensure that when disengagement happens, a process is in place".

Implicitly acknowledging fears by some outside Israel that Mr Sharon's government would reciprocate by playing its own part in advancing the peace process Mr Blair said Mr Sharon had made it clear he would be ready for a return to the road map if there was an "end to terrorism".

He added: "My message to the international community who may be doubtful about that is put it to the test."Repeatedly endorsing Mr Sharon's calls for the elimination of militant violence, Mr Blair said: "There is not going to be a negotiation without an end to terrorism. The world has changed."

Mr Sharon, who described Mr Blair as a "friend of Israel", added that if there was "full cessation of terror, hostilities and incitement" the door would be open to the road map and steps "which will change the life of Israelis, Palestinians and the situation in the region".

But despite signs that Mr Abbas is working towards a ceasefire of the militant factions, Mr Sharon criticised the Palestinian leadership for not doing more to stop violence. While he understood there were elections under way, he said: "They are not doing even the slightest effort".

Mr Abbas welcomed the idea of the conference, agreeing security was "very important". He insisted that measures taken by the Palestinian leadership had to be reciprocated by Israel.

He said that the Palestinians were eager to resume talks with Israel. "We are very keen and very concerned about catching up on the lost time."

Arriving at Ramallah's Muqata compound for talks, Mr Blair was greeted by a Palestinian military guard of honour as he walked towards the glass structure housing the tomb of Yasser Arafat. Pausing for a few seconds outside it, Mr Blair briefly inclined his head before entering the Palestinian headquarters for the meeting.