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Israel to give Powell pledge on West Bank troop cuts

Israel is expected to promise Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, today that it will take steps to facilitate Palestinian elections planned for January, including a cutback of its military presence in the West Bank.

General Powell, on what is likely to be his last trip here before leaving office, arrived in Israel last night at the start of a week of diplomacy designed to maximise the opportunities that Western leaders argue are presented by Israel's plan to disengage from Gaza and by the prospect of a new Palestinian leadership. General Powell, who will see the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, in Jerusalem this morning, is pressing Israel to remove roadblocks, ease checkpoints and pull back its forces from West Bank cities to ease the path for campaigning and maximise turnout in the presidential elections scheduled for 9 January. Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, will be here for talks on Wednesday.

Amid signs that the groundwork for an accord with the US on the elections has already been laid, an Israeli foreign ministry official said last night it was in the "long-term security interests of Israel" for the elections to go well and it would be seeking to ensure that they did. He said measures under consideration included a "redeployment" of troops stationed in the West Bank, provided there was no sudden rise in the level of security alert.

William Burns, the US Under-Secretary of State, who yesterday held talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials, said elections for the successor to the late Yasser Arafat and a Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank were important steps towards fulfilling the international road-map to peace, ending Israeli occupation and completing the solution of "two states for two peoples".

Ahmad Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister, said he had asked Mr Burns to seek an Israeli pullback from West Bank cities a month before the vote. "If elections are held under occupation, people will say the candidate rode in on top of an Israeli tank," he said. Mr Qureia said he would press General Powell on "timelines" for implementation of the road-map.

He also said he would ask General Powell to press for the release of prominent Palestinian prisoners, including the Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who some "young guard" elements of Fatah would prefer as the organisation's candidate, instead ofnew Palestinian Liberation Organisation chairman Mahmoud Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen.

* General Powell could find himself in the path of huge swarms of red locusts when he meetsPalestinian leaders in the West Bank city of Jericho today. The swarms landed yesterday near two Dead Sea hotels after being blown by southwesterly winds from the Sinai desert.