Sharon asks week without violence before peace talks

JERUSALEM -- On the eve of a major U.S. policy statement, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refused to ease demands for a week without violence as a condition for peace talks with Palestinians.

Violence continued Sunday. A bomb went off near the King David hotel in Jerusalem while police were trying to defuse it. No one was hurt by the bomb, which police said apparently was planted by Palestinians. In addition, two Palestinians, ages 17 and 70, died of wounds suffered in earlier clashes with Israeli forces.

Sharon noted that the United States agreed to Israel's condition of "seven days of quiet and no less" before a June cease-fire plan negotiated by CIA director George Tenet can be enforced.

U.S. pressure

The seven days must be followed by a six-week "cooling-off period" before Israel begins confidence-building measures such as a freeze on Jewish settlements, Sharon said at a news conference after meeting European Union leaders.

Palestinian Cabinet Secretary-General Ahmed Abdel Rahman said the demand for total calm was "an excuse, in effect hampering the efforts aimed at the resumption of peace talks."

The comments came a day before a much anticipated speech on the Middle East by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The Bush administration has been pressing Israel and the Palestinians to tone down their conflict, recently endorsing the creation of a Palestinian state. Washington fears continued violence could undermine Arab support for the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan.

Israeli-Palestinian violence has killed 757 people on the Palestinian side and 197 on the Israeli side in 14 months.

Despite Sharon's tough talk, the Israeli army pulled out of areas it had occupied for weeks in the West Bank town of Tulkarem.

That left Jenin the last Palestinian town partly occupied -- out of six seized last month in response to the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi. That killing was claimed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, avenging the August killing of its leader Mustafa Zibri, whom Israel accused of plotting attacks on civilians.

Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said the EU is prepared to help Israelis and Palestinians make peace.

"My message to you is: Use us," he said.

The EU delegation met with Sharon and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres a day after talks with Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

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