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Abbas to Meet with Militant Factions

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas meets with militant factions in the Gaza Strip Tuesday to try to win agreement on a ceasefire. The meeting is part of intense efforts to get the international peace 'road map' back on track.

Despite two days of talks with Egyptian mediators, the militant group Hamas has not agreed to a ceasefire. Hamas leaders say Israel must first agree to stop attacks against them, including targeting Palestinians suspected of involvement in violence against Israelis.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the most lethal recent attack, a suicide bombing in Jerusalem last Wednesday that killed 17 people and wounded more than 100. The Bush administration condemned the bombing but it also criticized Israel for trying to assassinate a senior Hamas official the day before.

Those incidents were part of a week of violence that claimed more than 60 lives and led to an intensification of efforts by Washington to calm the situation.

There were reports Tuesday that the Bush administration is holding secret talks with senior Israeli officials in Washington and may even send Secretary of State Colin Powell to Israel at the end of the week.

Israel Radio said Tuesday that Avi Dichter, the head of Israel's secret service, is now in Washington at the request of the Bush administration for previously unannounced consultations to explain Israel's security concerns.

Secretary Powell is to fly to Jordan this Thursday for an economic conference and it has been suggested he might make a side trip to Israel on Friday.

President Bush's special Middle East envoy John Wolf is already in the region and has been holding talks with both sides since arriving here last weekend.

Following his talks with Israeli officials Monday night, Mr. Wolf outlined the goals of his mission. "Our task is to work with the parties to try to realize the vision that President Bush, Prime Minister Sharon, and Prime Minister Abbas discussed and on which they committed," he said. Mr. Wolf said he is pleased with the conversations he has already had.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvam Shalom welcomed the delegation and American involvement in the peace process. "We said more than once in the past that the peace process should be led by the Americans and the monitoring group for security issues should be chaired by the Americans and we are very glad we have this American group here today with us," he said.

Also on Tuesday, a senior Israeli military official was quoted as saying that Israel will not return security authority to the Palestinians in any area until Hamas announces that it will cease terror attacks. However, optimism is still being expressed by both sides that will eventually agree to a ceasefire.