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Sharon to Seek Approval for Gaza Pullout - 2004-03-29

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he will seek cabinet and parliamentary approval next month for his planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. He says the plan will be put to the vote immediately after he returns from talks with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington.

Mr. Sharon says his first step is to win the backing of President Bush for his plan to withdraw troops and settlements from the Gaza Strip. The two leaders are scheduled to meet at the White House on April 14.

Mr. Sharon says that on his return to Israel he will first put the withdrawal plan before his cabinet, and then ask at once for a vote in the parliament.

The Israeli leader spoke during a meeting of the Israeli parliamentary foreign affairs and defense committee.

Mr. Sharon said he would form a new coalition on the same day if the cabinet refused to support the plan. But a spokesman for the prime minister said Mr. Sharon had made it clear he would not be forced to call an election over the issue.

Instead, the spokesman said Mr. Sharon's intention would be to remove members of the cabinet who voted against him and replace them with representatives from other political factions ready to support the Gaza plan.

During his briefing to the parliamentary committee, Mr. Sharon also outlined areas of the Gaza Strip where Israel will maintain a military presence after a troop withdrawal from the rest of the territory.

He said that for the foreseeable future Israeli troops would continue to patrol the so-called Philadelphia Corridor along the Egyptian border to prevent arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Sharon said that for security reasons Israel would also prevent the Gaza international airport from re-opening, and block the building of a Palestinian port on the Mediterranean.

The prime minister said Israel also intended to keep control of the northernmost part of the Gaza Strip, which has been used by Palestinian militants to fire rockets into the Jewish state.