US mission heads for Israel to try to save Bush peace plan

Washington sends diplomat to attempt to salvage peace plan after retaliatory violence claims 60 lives on both sides

A United States diplomatic mission was heading for the Middle East last night in an effort to salvage the roadmap peace plan, which is in serious trouble.

John Wolf, a US diplomat, is expected to begin work here today. President George Bush announced at the Aqaba summit earlier this month that he was appointing Mr Wolf to head a team to monitor progress under the roadmap, but the resurgence of violence within days of the summit means Mr Wolf may find himself taking a more active role than planned.

Since Aqaba there has been a rapid escalation in bloodshed, with 60 people killed on both sides in a series of retaliatory attacks by the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Israeli government. Israeli and Palestinian officials were due to hold talks last night following a statement yesterday from the Palestinian Authority (PA), which said it was prepared to take over security under an Israeli proposal to withdraw its army from areas of the northern Gaza Strip that it has reoccupied.

But hopes of renewed talks between Hamas and the PA over a possible ceasefire were dashed. Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, the most prominent leader of Hamas's political wing, whom Israel tried to assassinate a few days ago, said: "The word ceasefire is not in our dictionary. Resistance will continue until we uproot them from our homeland."

Hamas first broke off the talks after the Aqaba summit, accusing the Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, of giving too much ground to Israel. Since the missile attack on Dr Rantisi, it has vowed to reduce Israel to "rubble" and ordered all its militant cells to carry out attacks on Israelis immediately. On Wednesday, a Hamas suicide bomber killed 16 Israeli passengers on a bus in central Jerusalem.

Israel has vowed that it will "wage a war to the bitter end" against Hamas, and has carried out almost daily assassination attempts on militants in the Gaza Strip using helicopter missiles. In the last three days, six Hamas militants have been assassinated - and 16 innocent bystanders, including women and children, have been killed in the helicopter attacks. In one attack shortly after Wednesday's suicide bombing, witnesses said the helicopter fired a second time into a crowd of civilians who had gathered to help the wounded.

Under the new proposal for Israeli troops to withdraw from parts of northern Gaza, the Israeli government is demanding that Palestinian security forces crack down on Hamas militants and prevent them firing rockets over the fence into Israel. If the withdrawal takes place, it will be a test of the ability of the Palestinian minister in charge of security, Mohammed Dahlan, to control the militants - and of how far Israel is prepared to stand aside and give him a free hand.

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