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Mideast talks amid clashes

JERUSALEM -- Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is to travel to Cairo to discuss a joint Egypt-Jordanian peace proposal amid continuing violence.

Peres held last-minute talks with his prime minister Ariel Sharon on Friday before leaving for discussions with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak on Sunday and then onto Amman.

Ariel Sharon's government has so far been reluctant to air its position on the proposal put forward by the potential peacebrokers in an attempt to end seven months of bloodshed in which more than 400 people have lost their lives.

More clashes broke out on the eve of Peres' departure, leaving eight Palestinians injured from Israeli army gunfire, witnesses and medical officials said.

 TIMELINES
graphic Recent acts of violence in the Middle East:
 • Bombings
 • Activist deaths
 

The Palestinians were hurt after sporadic stone-throwing protests across the West Bank.

In a separate incident Palestinians set-off a roadside bomb at the entrance of a Jewish settlement in Gaza, slightly injuring an Israeli soldier and a Jewish settler, the Israeli army said.

Sharon's office issued a statement after the meeting with Peres which said the talks will be "aimed at bringing about a cessation of terror and violence and as such creating the necessary groundwork for the renewal of political negotiations."

An Israeli political source told the Reuters news agency: "Israel will present its positions and move the ball to the Arab and Palestinian court."

A draft copy of the Egyptian-Jordanian plan calls for both sides to halt the violence, Reuters said.

But other demands, including that Israel lifts its blockade of the West Bank and Gaza, and that it withdraws troops from around Palestinian population centers, are believed to be opposed by Israel.

Other proposals under the plan are an immediate freeze on all building of Jewish settlements, the release of money owed to the Palestinians, and an early resumption of talks on a final peace settlement with a six-month deadline for their completion.

The plan says the two sides should "preserve and develop" progress made in earlier talks including last year's United States-brokered Camp David summit.

The talks are believed to be based on understandings discussed in Egypt last October.

CNN's Mike Hanna said the proposal had been a "long time in genesis" before being formally presented to Israel at the beginning of last week.

Sharon has consistently said he would not pick up the talks from where they had been left, and an Israeli government source added it would not accept a blanket freeze on building in Jewish settlements.

The Israeli prime minister also wants the violence to stop before peace negotiations take place.

An additional assessment will be conducted on Peres' return, the government said.

The Palestinians have already endorsed the proposals and senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters they would not accept any changes.

"Israeli amendments on the Egyptian-Jordanian initiative will definitely torpedo it," Erekat said.

"The amendments mean pursuing Jewish settlements and not resuming the negotiations from the point where they left off."

A senior Jordanian official said the Israeli response "will be a test of the seriousness of their intentions."

U.S. and Russia watching carefully

The U.S. said the joint initiative could help produce progress.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is to meet Peres in Washington next week, said: "We are following that very, very closely, and I know that the Israelis are looking at it and there may be something that comes out of that, with a basis to move forward."

He added: "Hopefully, both sides understand they have reached the limit of the strategies they have been following."

Russian President Vladimir Putin praised the peace plan during talks with Mubarak in Moscow on Friday, describing it as "movement in the right direction."

Labor Party member Haim Ramon told Israeli Radio that Sharon could not reject the Egyptian-Jordanian initiative because he would come under harsh international criticism.

Talks continued between Palestinian and Israeli security chiefs on Friday following a similar round of discussions last week, but without success, a senior Palestinian official said.

The talks centred on attempts to lighten the restrictions imposed by the Israeli government on the West Bank and Gaza.

But further high-level talks are planned for Sunday.



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