Sharon and Arafat accept CIA chief's ceasefire plan

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Israel and the Palestinians accepted a truce plan proposed by CIA chief George Tenet, raising the prospect of an end to nearly nine months of fighting that has claimed almost 600 lives.

There was a possibility implementation could start today, after a three–way meeting of Tenet and security officials from both sides in Tel Aviv, although there is disagreement on some key issues, including a buffer zone Israel wants to establish along the frontier with the West Bank.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said he expected Israel to take substantial steps within the next 48 hours toward lifting its sweeping travel restrictions on Palestinians. Within a week, Israeli troops would have to withdraw to the positions they held before the outbreak of the fighting, the minister said.

Israeli Cabinet Secretary Gideon Saar gave no indication whether Israel agreed to this schedule, but suggested that if the cease–fire was observed, Israel would reciprocate rapidly.

"When the fire stops completely, we will be able to see changes on the ground within a short period of time, regarding pulling back forces and returning life to normal," Mr Saar told Israel radio.

Palestinians accepted the U.S. plan, albeit with reservations, after a meeting last night between Mr Tenet and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had announced his acceptance of the plan a few hours earlier.

While Mr Tenet was trying to cement the truce, two Israelis were wounded by Palestinian gunmen near the Jewish settlement of Ofra in the West Bank today. The two Israelis were standing by the side of the road near the gates of Ofra when they were shot from a passing car, police said. The two men were in stable condition.

Last night, a Greek monk was killed by Palestinian gunmen while driving from Jerusalem toward his monastery near the West Bank town of Jericho.

In a first sign of implementing one of the truce provisions, Palestinian police in the Gaza Strip today searched cars for mortar launchers. In recent months, Palestinians have fired dozens of mortars at Jewish settlements in the strip.

As Mr Tenet and Mr Arafat talked late Tuesday, about 1,000 Palestinians demonstrated nearby against the U.S. proposals. Marwan Barghouti, West Bank leader of Arafat's Fatah movement, said that Mr Tenet "aims to end our intefadeh (uprising) without any political achievements."

the CIA chief arrived last week to try to stabilize a shaky cease–fire that has been punctuated by Palestinian attacks and Israeli fire in return.

Mr Sharon declared a unilateral cease–fire May 22, but the Palestinians dismissed it as a publicity stunt. After a Palestinian suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv June 1 killed 21 people, most of them Israeli teenagers, Mrr Arafat called for an immediate end to violence.