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Israel limits strikes militants { June 18 2003 }

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Israel 'Limits' Strikes on Militants
Wed June 18, 2003 06:01 AM ET

By Mark Heinrich
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel has agreed to curb "track-and-kill" operations against Palestinian militants in a deal struck with U.S. officials to help them salvage a new peace plan torn by violence, security sources said on Wednesday.

After more than 50 people were killed in a rash of attacks and counter-attacks last week, Washington demanded restraint to enable confidence-building steps required of each side by the "road map" plan launched by President Bush on June 4.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas fell short of coaxing a cease-fire from militants in another bid on Tuesday.

Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli girl in a car near the West Bank afterwards, feeding the cycle of violence.

But security sources said Israel would now target only militants identified as likely to carry out a suicide bombing or other attack imminently, not top political figures.

Right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sanctioned a helicopter missile strike on Hamas political leader Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi on June 10. Rantissi survived, but the assassination attempt plunged U.S.-sponsored peacemaking into turmoil.

Hamas responded by killing 17 Jerusalem bus passengers in a suicide bombing. Israel followed with more aerial assaults that killed some Hamas men but more bystanders. The violence boosted powerful foes of negotiated compromise on both sides.

"We have undertaken to limit our track-and-kill operations to terrorists who are definitely 'ticking bombs'. When it comes to more borderline cases such as Rantissi, who is in a command position, we will hold fire as much as possible," one Israel security source told Reuters.

"This is to demonstrate to all sides that Israel is serious about giving the current round of talks the best chance of succeeding and forestall Palestinian charges of 'sabotage'."


The deal was worked out by Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, in the latest of a series of trips he has made to the White House to resolve disputes over a peace plan Sharon's right-wing cabinet endorsed only under U.S. pressure.

It envisages the creation of a Palestinian state in Israeli-occupied territory by 2005 after a dismantling of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and a Palestinian crackdown on militants sworn to destroying Israel.

Security sources denied Israeli media reports the policy would apply for just six weeks. "This is not for a set period of time, nor is it linked to any action or inaction on the part of the Palestinian (authorities)," one said.

Sharon had ruled out progress on the road map unless Abbas subdued Hamas radical Islamists. A suicide bombing campaign they have spearheaded has killed scores of Israelis since the start of a Palestinian uprising for statehood in September 2000.

Talks between Abbas and 13 militant factions on ending attacks on Israelis broke up without agreement late on Tuesday, but were likely to resume soon.

Anxious not to see the most ambitious Middle East peace plan in more than two years ruined by vengeful violence, Bush decided to dispatch Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region on Friday to mediate -- his second trip in a month.

There was no claim of responsibility for Tuesday night's shooting on the car near Kibbutz Eyal in central Israel which the army said was carried out by Palestinians firing from a house in the West Bank border town of Qalqilya.

Medics said the dead girl was seven and two people wounded in the attack were her five-year-old sister and her father.

An army spokesman said troops clamped a curfew on Qalqilya and searched houses for the assailants. (Additional reporting by Dan Williams)

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