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Talks Set on Returning Towns to Palestinian Control

Top Israeli and Palestinian security officials are scheduled to meet Sunday to discuss returning control of four West Bank towns to the Palestinians over the next two weeks. The discussions are part of efforts to keep hopes alive for the international "road map" to peace in the Middle East.

Israel is proposing that the Palestinian Authority resume security control over the four towns within ten days, providing there are no more terror attacks.

Under the plan, Israel will transfer Qalqilyah and Jericho to the Palestinians on Monday or Tuesday, while Ramallah and Tulkarem will be handed back next week.

Israel is to also start removing roadblocks from around Palestinian self-rule areas of the West Bank to allow greater freedom of movement.

These moves are contingent upon the Palestinian Authority agreeing to take steps against Palestinian armed groups and to prevent them from carrying out more attacks against Israelis.

The plan also includes an offer to allow Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to leave his besieged headquarters in Ramallah for the first time in more than a year and travel to Gaza to visit the grave of his sister, who died recently.

But aides to Mr. Arafat said they want international guarantees that the Palestinian leader will be free to return to the West Bank.

Israel accuses Mr. Arafat of orchestrating violence against Israel over the past three years. For more than 12 months he has remained confined to his Ramallah compound, most of which was destroyed by Israeli troops during a series of sieges. Mr. Arafat denies he has encouraged any bloodshed.

Meanwhile, Israel has rejected Palestinian claims that Palestinian refugees are to be guaranteed the right of return to areas that are now part of the Jewish state under the "road map" to peace plan.

The plan calls for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005.

Israeli officials, however, said these goals would be not reached if the Palestinians continue to insist that Palestinian refugees have the right to re-settle in Israeli cities.