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Palestinians Say  No Talks Until Israeli Forces Leave - 2002-03-16


In Israel, cease-fire talks were thrown into doubt late Saturday after Israel announced it would meet on Sunday with U.S. and Palestinian officials and the Palestinians said they would not.

A statement from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office Saturday evening said he would head the Israeli delegation in a three-way meeting on Sunday. The purpose of the meeting was to declare a cease-fire and then begin thrashing out the details for implementing it.

But a few hours later the Palestinians issued a statement to say they would not participate in any talks until Israeli forces pulled out of Palestinian-controlled territories.

Shortly after the Palestinian statement, Israel announced that contrary to earlier reports, no decision has been made to hold a three-way meeting and U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni will continue his talks with both sides.

The Israeli withdrawal has been a key Palestinian condition to opening cease-fire negotiations. The U.S. administration has also called for the military pullout. Mr. Zinni repeated that demand when he met with Prime Minister Sharon shortly after arriving in Israel on Thursday.

Early Friday Israel did pull back its troops from Ramallah and two other West Bank towns. But the forces still remain in Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr. Zinni has already held two rounds of separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials on this - his third attempt to broker a cease-fire. He says he will stay as long as it takes to end more than 18 months of bloodshed that has claimed more than one 1,300 victims, most of them Palestinians.

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