Bush envoy to continue efforts at peace

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The Independent Online

The Bush administration said its special envoy to the Middle East would stay in the region and continue his efforts to broker a ceasefire.

General Anthony Zinni had spoken to Yasser Arafat yesterday morning, Washington officials said. The Secretary of State, Colin Powell, also immersed himself in the peace efforts, spending much of yesterday morning speaking to leaders in the region.

"We have followed developments overnight and this morning in the Middle East," said a White House spokesman, Sean McCormack. "General Zinni remains in the region, is in contact with the parties and continues his work." Mr McCormack said officials were "assessing appropriate responses". Later Mr Powell again called on Mr Arafat to crack down on terrorists.

However, the White House's initial reluctance to issue a more forceful statement underlines the difficulty it faces in responding to the escalation of violence. While it has previously criticised Ariel Sharon's operations in Gaza and the West Bank, it has stressed Israel's right to defend itself.

There is also little doubt that the fighting at Mr Arafat's compound yesterday and the latest suicide bomb attack have blunted the momentum that US officials had cited as recently as Thursday. That chink of optimism emerged after delegates to the Arab summit in Beirut unanimously endorsed a Saudi peace proposal.

The State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, had said the proposal held out a vision of hope. But US officials had also said ending the violence should remain a priority.

General Zinni, a retired Marine, has been in the region for two weeks after being asked to return by President Bush. He had been recalled from the mission late last year.

The focus of his efforts has been to build support for a truce plan sketched out last year by the director of the CIA, George Tenet, calling for the Palestinians to crack down on suspected militants and prevent attacks on Israelis. It also called on Israel to lift its broad travel bans on Palestinians and pull back to the positions it was in before the latest fighting broke out in September 2000.