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US Urges Libya to Avoid Gaza Aid Confrontation with Israel

The United States urged Libya on Tuesday to avoid confrontation with Israel over a Libyan ship heading for the blockaded Gaza Strip with aid supplies for Palestinians. The State Department also criticized Israel's demolition of several Palestinian buildings in East Jerusalem.

Hoping to avoid a repeat of the fatal clash between Israeli commandos and Turkish activists in May, the United States is urging Libya to submit a Gaza-bound boatload of food and medicine to Israeli inspection.

A Libyan-chartered ship with 2,000 tons of aid supplies is reportedly heading for the Gaza coast, despite a radioed warning from the Israeli navy to change course.

The Moldovan-flagged vessel is said to be carrying 14 activists affiliated with a charity run by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi.

Israel announced last month that it was easing its blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza amid an international uproar over its commando raid on a Turkish aid flotilla on May 31 that left nine activists dead.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States and other sponsors of regional peace efforts want Libya to avoid another maritime clash and allow the cargo to be inspected by Israel before it is sent on to Gaza.

"We, along with our partners in the in the Quartet, urge all those wishing to deliver goods to do so through established channels so that cargo can be inspected by the government of Israel, and transferred via land crossings into Gaza," said P.J. Crowley. "We have urged the Libyan government to avoid unnecessary confrontations. We call on all parties to act responsibly in meeting the needs of the people of Gaza."

Crowley said U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell is leaving Washington for the region on Wednesday for more contacts aimed at upgrading indirect Israeli-Palestinian peace contacts to direct negotiations.

The spokesman said prospects for the Mitchell mission are not helped by Israel's demolition on Tuesday of several Palestinian buildings in mainly-Arab East Jerusalem. Israel says the structures were illegally built.

Again, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley:

"The United States has made it clear it disagrees with some government of Israel actions in Jerusalem that affect Palestinians in areas such as housing, including home demolitions, and has urged all parties to avoid actions that could undermine trust," he said. "We continue to oppose and will make clear to the government of Israel that we oppose unilateral actions that prejudge negotiations."

Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of an envisaged state. Crowley said the United States sees Jerusalem as a final-status issue to be decided through negotiations.

Israeli officials say none of the buildings demolished on Tuesday was occupied, but Palestinians say three were Arab homes. The demolitions were the first by Israel since last October.

In a gesture to the United States aimed at helping the Mitchell mission, Israel has announced a moratorium on settlement building until October.

Crowley said Mitchell, on his second trip to the area this month, will also visit several Arab and European capitals before returning to Washington.