Straw backs Abbas with call for full peace conference

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The Independent Online

The Palestinian meeting in London today, hosted by Tony Blair, could pave the way for a peace conference on the Middle East, the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said. Mr Blair had talks with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, in Downing Street to discuss the strategy for reviving the peace process, after a suicide bombing by militants in Tel Aviv on Friday was condemned as the work of "rejectionist terrorists" by the Foreign Secretary.

The Palestinian meeting in London today, hosted by Tony Blair, could pave the way for a peace conference on the Middle East, the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said. Mr Blair had talks with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, in Downing Street to discuss the strategy for reviving the peace process, after a suicide bombing by militants in Tel Aviv on Friday was condemned as the work of "rejectionist terrorists" by the Foreign Secretary.

Mr Straw gave his backing to the hopes expressed by Mr Abbas in The Independent yesterday that the meeting will pave the way for a full peace conference under the provisions of the Middle East road map. "What we hope is that by making practical suggestions about the political institutions it will help to build confidence so that a peace conference can be held," Mr Straw said.

He recognised that thebombing in Tel Aviv provided a "sombre backdrop" to today. "There has been a continuing stream of information about the fact that a number of rejectionist terrorist groups continue to base their activities in Syria," Mr Straw said.

"I hope Syria is reassessing its strategic position. The decision of the Syrians to hand over Saddam Hussein's half-brother - he was a high-value target, high on the wanted list - may be an indication that the Syrians have decided to move." But he added: "On the basing of rejectionist terrorist groups within Syria and the continuing support for Hezbollah, but also their permissive environment for the other groups, the Syrians have a lot of work to do to convince us that has ended."

Israel left no doubt that it blamed Syria for the Tel Aviv bombing which killed five Israelis outside a disco. Israeli intelligence officers briefed ambassadors of the European Union, the G8 and the UN Security Council. They read from a transcript of an intercepted telephone call in which Ramadan Shallah, Islamic Jihad's Damascus-based leader, ordered a West Bank commander to go ahead with the bombing. The West Bank activist was not named. Officials said they hoped to make more arrests in co-operation with the Palestinian security services.

Islamic Jihad, which claimed the attack, named Abdullah Badran, a 21-year-old West Bank student, as the Tel Aviv bomber. In a video, Badran said the attack was designed to harm the Palestinian Authority, which he accused of serving the United States by opting for the diplomatic track.

Israel did not accuse President Bashar Assad of directly ordering the bombing, but Mark Regev, the foreign ministry spokesman, said: "In a regime like the Syrian regime, such an order could not come from Damascus unless the regime was acquiescing or collaborating."

Syrian officials have strenuously denied involvement, even asserting that the militias no longer maintain headquarters in their capital. A Western diplomat who was at the briefing said: "The intelligence material lent weight to what the officials were saying about the involvement of external players, but I don't think it was conclusive on its own." Syria and Israel are not at today's meeting.

Later yesterday, Israel's military spokesman said a car bomb, with 10kg of high explosive, had been stopped near the West Bank Jewish settlement of Mevo Dotan, south of Jenin. Military sources said it was linked to the Islamic Jihad cell behind the Tel Aviv bombing.

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