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Rice Tours Former Militant Stronghold in West Bank

America's top diplomat is continuing a Middle East peace mission, with an unusual stop earlier today in the Palestinian territories. Robert Berger reports from the VOA bureau in Jerusalem.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made her first visit to the West Bank town of Jenin, once known as the capital of Palestinian suicide bombers. Rice has gone to the West Bank many times in recent years, but for security reasons she remained within the walls of the Palestinian Authority compound in the town of Ramallah.

By visiting Jenin, Rice wanted to highlight the success of U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in restoring law and order, seen as important building block for peace with Israel. "Even under difficult circumstances, even with the difficult tasks, this is a place of hope, this is place of inspiration and ultimately it is a place from which the Palestinian state will spring forth," she said.

Rice's first stop was a Jenin hospital, where she inaugurated a ward renovated with 700-thousand dollars in American aid. She was accompanied by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The United States and Israel have been trying to strengthen the moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in a civil war more than a year ago. After Hamas routed Mr. Abbas's Fatah forces, two rival Palestinian governments emerged: the Iranian-backed militant regime in Gaza and the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Efforts at reconciliation suffered a blow Saturday when Hamas decided to boycott Egyptian-mediated talks with Fatah that were due to begin Sunday in Cairo. Hamas said the reason is that the Abbas government failed to keep a pledge to release Hamas prisoners ahead of the dialogue.

Fatah official Nabil Shaath expressed shock over the decision. "I really don't see anything, anything whatsoever, that would rise to the level of an excuse to stop such a meeting that will lead the way to ending the division and ending the separation between Gaza and the West Bank, between the Palestinian people on political and geographical ground," he said.

Hamas refuses to renounce violence or recognize Israel. And Israel has warned President Abbas that reconciliation with the group will harm the peace process.