US envoy optimistic on Middle East peace accord

50 tons of arms seized by Israeli army

Conditions are right for making progress in Middle East peace talks, an optimistic US envoy Anthony Zinni said today, after separate meetings with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Israel's army chief, meanwhile, announced the interception of a ship smuggling 50 tons of Iranian–made weapons which, he said, were intended for the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian officials denied any ties to the shipment and said the Israeli announcement was intended to sabotage Mr Zinni's mission.

Israeli troops backed by tanks and helicopters raided a West Bank village, killing a suspected Palestinian gunman.

Mr Zinni held talks with Ariel Sharon at the Israeli prime minister's farm in Israel and with Yasser Arafat at the Palestinian leader's West Bank headquarters in Ramallah.

Mr Zinni, whose last mission in December was aborted by a surge of violence, said the task remained difficult, but that he was confident he could succeed.

"I am optimistic, I am hopeful and I feel that we have the conditions that are right to make progress this time," he said in Ramallah, adding that he would make frequent trips to the region after returning to Washington early next week.

The interception of the vessel proved that Arafat's government was "infected by terrorism from head to toe," said the Israeli army chief, Lieutenant General Shaul Mofaz.

The vessel, Karine A., was seized 310 miles from the Israeli Red Sea port of Eilat. The 4,000–ton ship is owned by the Palestinian Authority and carried mines, mortars and missiles intended for the Palestinian territories, Gen. Mofaz said.

He said the captain and several officers were members of the Palestinian naval police.

Mr Arafat's advisers vehemently denied any links to the shipment and asked the Americans to join an investigation into the matter. Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo dismissed the Israeli allegations as a "theatrical game" aimed at torpedoing Zinni's truce efforts.

"We insist that the Palestinian Authority has nothing to do with this ship, these allegations are false," Abed Rabbo said.

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