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US Eases Ban on Gaza Diplomatic Travel

The Bush administration has eased a ban on travel in Gaza by U.S. diplomats amid preparations for Israel's withdrawal from the area. But the State Department says the United States remains dissatisfied with the Palestinian Authority's investigation of the 2003 killing of three American security guards that prompted the travel ban.

The United States imposed the Gaza travel ban in October 2003 after a convoy carrying U.S. diplomats to an appointment in Gaza City was attacked with a remote control bomb, killing three employees of the private U.S. security firm DynCorp who were protecting the motorcade.

The Palestinian Authority, then run by the late Yasser Arafat, arrested several members of a militant faction shortly after the attack, but they were subsequently released and the incident has remained a sore spot in U.S.-Palestinian relations.

At a news briefing Thursday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said the ban was being relaxed on a case-by-case basis, to facilitate the upswing in diplomatic activity related to Israel's pending withdrawal from Gaza, planned for August.

Mr. Ereli said U.S. diplomats accompanied former World Bank President James Wolfensohn on a visit to Gaza Tuesday, in support of his mandate as envoy of the international Middle East Quartet for post-withdrawal economic reconstruction in Gaza.

He said the ban would also be eased to allow diplomats to join in contacts with Palestinians by U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Ward, who is helping coordinate security aspects of the withdrawal.

The spokesman said the ban, which effectively froze direct U.S. contacts with Gaza-based Palestinian officials, was being altered because of the unique circumstances of the pending withdrawal.

However, he stressed the United States is still not getting the cooperation it wants from the Palestinians on the murder case.

"We have consistently demanded that the Palestinian Authority take action to locate, apprehend and bring to justice the killers of our colleagues," said Mr. Ereli. "The performance of the Palestinian Authority on this issue remains insufficient and unacceptable to us. We in our meetings with the new Palestinian leadership have made clear that we look to them to arrest and prosecute and convict those responsible."

Palestinian PM Mahmoud Abbas (l) and Condoleeza Rice
Mr. Ereli said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised the issue with Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas this week in Ramallah, and that Mr. Abbas said he is committed to bringing those responsible to justice.

The 2003 bomb attack, which also wounded a fourth DynCorp security agent, was the first of its kind against American officials traveling in the Palestinian areas.

The diplomats in the convoy, attached to the U.S. Consulate-General in Jerusalem, were not harmed. They had been en route to Gaza City to interview Palestinian students who had applied for Fulbright scholarships to study in the United States.

The attack, with a remotely detonated buried explosive device, occurred on the main north-south road in Gaza not far from the Israeli-run Erez crossing point.

U.S. officials were incredulous at the time that the bomb could have been planted there without the knowledge of Palestinian security forces.