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US Envoys Arrive in Middle East for Talks - 2001-11-26

Two senior U.S. envoys have arrived in the Middle East as part of a new diplomatic effort to end 14 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Hours before the diplomats arrived a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up, lightly wounding two Israeli soldiers.

U.S. State Department envoy William Burns and retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni arrived with the immediate priority of trying to negotiate a viable cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians. Upon arrival at the airport they met with the director of Israel's Shin Bet security service, and the head of Israeli military intelligence.

After briefings from U.S. officials in the region Monday night, the diplomatic team is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Tuesday. On Wednesday the group is set to hold talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The U.S. team arrived hours after a Palestinian man exploded charges that were strapped to his body near the Erez crossing in the Gaza Strip. The attack occurred at the checkpoint where some Palestinians enter Israel to work.

The militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the explosion, saying the bomber was from a refugee camp in Gaza City. Hamas says the attack was in retaliation for the assassination of one of its military leaders in an Israeli helicopter strike on Friday.

Israel says Mahmoud Abu Hanoud was the mastermind behind suicide bombings that killed dozens of Israelis.

Despite the continuing violence, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres expressed the hope that the new U.S. diplomatic effort will be successful. "With all the disappointments we have had in the past, we believe that this is a new trial and a new beginning," he said. "When it comes to peace, nobody should become tired."

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo says he hopes the U.S. negotiating team will be even-handed.

"I believe that if the American administration and the American envoys, if they do not take a firm position towards the crimes committed by the Israeli government, it is better to put an end to their mission and to their efforts because in this case they have doomed their efforts to failure," he said.

As the U.S. envoys arrived in the region, Prime Minister Sharon renewed his demand for seven days of "absolute quiet" before moving ahead with a cease-fire agreement reached earlier that requires Israel to pull back troops and lift travel restrictions in Palestinian areas.

The Palestinians dismiss the Israeli demand as a ploy for evading its obligations and accused Mr. Sharon of recently stepping up military strikes to sabotage the U.S. mission.