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Palestinian-Israeli Talks Are Top Aim of Powell Mission - 2002-04-15

Secretary of State Colin Powell says he is discussing with Israel and the Palestinians the idea of an international conference to restore a political dialogue between the parties. Mr. Powell has resumed contacts with the two sides after a brief trip Monday to Lebanon and Syria.

Mr. Powell told reporters on a flight from Damascus to Tel Aviv that a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian security talks is the main objective of his Middle East mission, now more than a week old.

But he says there must also be speedy action to restore momentum toward a political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the conference idea is at least one way to do it.

"We are anxious to see if we can get security discussions going. And that is upper-most in my mind right now. But as you have heard me say, we have got to move quickly to a political track," he said. "And there are many ways to do that and one way is with a regional or international conference. The conference, in and of itself, is not the solution. But it is a way to get the parties together and talking."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed the conference to Mr. Powell when the two met in Tel Aviv Sunday and the Secretary says Palestinian-leader Yasser Arafat has also endorsed the idea.

Mr. Sharon has said the Palestinian leader should be excluded from the conference, but Secretary Powell said that would not necessarily scuttle the idea, since the meeting could be convened at the foreign-minister level.

The Secretary interrupted his contacts with the two parties for a 12-hour trip to Lebanon and Syria to try to persuade leaders of the two countries to rein-in Hezbollah guerrillas. Hezbollah has been firing rockets into northern Israel on an almost-daily basis since Israel began its West Bank offensive late last month.

There is widespread international concern that the pattern of rocket attacks and Israeli retaliation could escalate into a second front in a regional conflict.

In his airborne news conference, Mr. Powell said Syrian President Bashar Assad laid blame for the current state of affairs on Israel, but said he would contact leaders of Hezbollah to urge restraint:

"President Bashar spent a great deal of time talking about the problem as he saw it, and talking about Israel as the source of the problem, and that would not surprise you," he said. "But at the same time he recognized that it would not be in anyone's interest, at this point to not try to restrain Hezbollah. That is what he said. He said he would talk to them, and I expect that he will do that."

In a joint appearance with Mr. Powell in Beirut, Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud said Hezbollah attacks on Israeli troops in the disputed Shebaa farms area of the border region were legitimate resistance to occupation.

The Lebanese government has not sent forces into the border area since Israel withdrew from its self-described "security zone" in southern Lebanon two years ago, effectively leaving the area to Hezbollah control.

Mr. Powell said he was not asking for a large-scale deployment of Lebanese troops in the area, but said, at least some government security presence in the area would have a "deterring effect" against Hezbollah.