Palestinian militants agree to end suicide bombings

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The Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad formally announced yesterday that they are halting all suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis in a ceasefire, with immediate effect. Hours later, Yasser Arafat's ruling Fatah party announced that it was joining the ceasefire.

And yesterday evening the Israeli army began withdrawing from the Gaza Strip under a deal to return control to Palestinian security forces.

The ceasefire and the withdrawal represent the first real progress under the road-map peace plan personally backed by President George Bush, and the first hint that respite from almost three years of relentless bloodshed may be at hand.

The announcement coincided with a visit to the region by President Bush's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, for talks with both sides.

Abd al-Aziz Rantisi, the most prominent leader of Hamas's political wing, said: "The two movements [Hamas and Islamic Jihad] decided to suspend military operations against the Zionist enemy for three months." Hours later, Fatah announced that it was joining the ceasefire, a move that it is hoped will bring with it other militant groups.

Israel immediately dismissed the ceasefire. Gideon Meir, the deputy director general at Israel's Foreign Ministry, said: "I will repeat what Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said two hours ago to ... Condoleezza Rice. This ceasefire is a ticking bomb because it actually maintains the infrastructure of terror."

Mr Rantisi, whom Israel tried to assassinate three weeks ago, said the ceasefire was conditional on Israel halting its policy of assassinating militants, stopping military incursions into Palestinian towns and cities, and releasing Palestinian prisoners. "We consider ourselves free from this initiative if the Israeli enemy does not implement all the conditions," Mr Rantisi said.

Israel has made clear it is reluctant to stop assassinations, and has said it will do so only in areas where the Palestinian Authority takes over security, and only if Palestinian security forces act against militants.

The Israeli government was not the only one to criticise the ceasefire. A leaflet was released in the name of the third major Palestinian militant faction, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, rejecting the ceasefire. The Al-Aqsa Brigades, which have links with Fatah, have been responsible for the deaths of scores of people in suicide bombings and their refusal to join in could undermine a ceasefire.

The withdrawal from the northern Gaza Strip, which began last night, is the first Israeli pullback under the road-map, which calls for Israel to withdraw to the positions it held before the intifada began in September 2000. Palestinian security forces will assume responsibility for stopping militant attacks.