Hamas calls three-month halt to suicide bombings

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The Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad have agreed to halt all suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis in a three-month ceasefire, senior leaders from the groups said yesterday.

If the ceasefire holds, it could bring an end to almost three years of bloodshed and allowPresident George Bush's road-map peace plan to progress.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority also agreed a deal under which Israeli troops will withdraw from parts of the Gaza Strip and Palestinian security forces will resume control, according to Palestinian and Israeli sources.The withdrawal could start on Monday.Condoleezza Rice, the US National Security Adviser, is expected to arrive for talks today.

Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas's spiritual leader, said: "Hamas has studied all the developments and has reached a decision to call a truce, or a suspension of fighting activities."

Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Prime Minister, has been negotiating a ceasefire as a first step to fulfilling his pledge at the Aqaba summit to "end the armed intifada".

But Israeli officials dismissed the ceasefire. An unnamed "senior government source" was quoted as saying the ceasefire was "not worth the paper it was written on". Israel has claimed the militants will use a ceasefire to regroup.

David Faranga, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said: "In our opinion, a cease-fire will not help. What is needed is the dismantling of the terrorist infrastructure."

Under the deal Israeli soldiers will withdraw from areas of Gaza they reoccupied and the main north-south highway in the Gaza Strip is to be reopened gradually to Palestinian traffic. Talks are continuing to reach a similar deal in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

The smaller Islamic Jihad group is "inclined towards calm", Mohammed al-Hindi, its leader in the Gaza Strip, said yesterday. "We are in a dialogue with other Palestinian factions and preparing a joint paper."

A third militant faction, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, is expected to join the ceasefire.