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Meeting canceled for Abbas, Sharon

| Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Palestinians have called off a summit this week with Israel's prime minister to show their dissatisfaction regarding Israel's plans for a prisoner release. One Palestinian lawmaker Tuesday warned of a "major crisis" and called for quick U.S. intervention.

The U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan has hit a series of snags in recent days, leading to the cancellation of the planned meeting between Israel's Prime Minister Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

The Palestinians' decision is in protest of Israel's plan to release some 440 Palestinian inmates today. They say the inmate list contains few long-serving detainees.

Israel is not required under the road map to free prisoners, but Abbas has made it a key condition for further progress on the plan.

Israel holds some 7,700 prisoners and is loathe to release many of them while Palestinian militant groups are still armed -- and the cease-fire declared June 29 still is considered temporary.

Palestinian officials have argued that 3,000 could be released without posing a risk to Israeli security. Militant groups have threatened to abandon the cease-fire if Israel fails to release enough prisoners.

Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat, a leading spokesman for the Palestinians, called for U.S. involvement to avert "the development of a major crisis."

"I believe that the only way to defuse this crisis is with the intervention of the American administration to ensure the implementation of the first phase of the road map," Erekat said.

U.S. envoy John Wolf has been in the region since Friday, meeting with Israeli and Palestinians security officials. A U.S. government official said Assistant Secretary of State William Burns will arrive next week. But the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said no other high-level visits are planned, although the peace plan is encountering a "very rough going."

Both sides have not carried out obligations -- Palestinians have not moved to disarm militants, and Israel has not frozen construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza or dismantled scores of unauthorized outposts. Israeli troops also remain in control of most West Bank towns.

Erekat reiterated a Palestinian desire for the deployment of monitors to guarantee and to verify progress in the peace plan. The road map calls for an end to violence and a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip by 2005.

Both sides have turned to the United States to play a pivotal role in negotiating peace. Sharon and Abbas held separate summits with President Bush in late July, each seeking support for their positions. Sharon and Abbas last met July 20.

Abbas met in Gaza yesterday with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders. Afterward, spokesmen of the two militant groups demanded the release of all Palestinian prisoners and said they did not discuss extending their truce because of Israeli violations of the peace plan.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Nafez Azzam backed Abbas' decision to call off his meeting with Sharon.

"There is no reason to have meetings with the Israelis while they are continuing their aggression against our people," he said.

Israel has resisted quick movement on the peace plan, demanding that Palestinian forces dismantle militant groups and confiscate illegal weapons as required under the road map. Palestinians argue that a confrontation with the militants could lead to civil war.

Israel has rolled back a commitment to withdraw from two more West Bank towns after gunmen ambushed an Israeli car Sunday night; four Israelis were injured. Israel said the prisoner transfers would not go ahead until the Palestinians take action against the shooters.

Militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which is affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility.

A senior Israeli security official said yesterday that there have been 178 attacks since June 29, including 118 gunfire incidents. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said many of the recent attacks carried out by Al Aqsa militants were funded and directed by Iran.

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