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Forces told to block attacks on Israel

Order by Abbas backed by Cabinet

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, under growing pressure to rein in militants, ordered his security forces yesterday to prevent attacks on Israel and investigate a deadly shooting of Israeli civilians last week.

But Palestinian security officials were short on details about possible actions against armed groups, and a spokesman for Hamas said his extremist group would continue attacks.

The order by Abbas, approved by his Cabinet, was the Palestinian leadership's first step against militants since six Israelis were slain Thursday at the Karni crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

"A decision was taken that we will handle our obligation to stop violence against Israelis anywhere," Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said.

While Israel's government cautiously welcomed the announcement, it remained unclear how far Abbas was willing to go. He has insisted he will use persuasion, not force, to get militants to halt violence.

Palestinian ministers said Abbas planned to travel to Gaza today, a day earlier than initially planned, for talks with two militant groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Abbas's victory in the Jan. 9 election for president of the Palestinian Authority raised hopes for a breakthrough in Mideast peacemaking because he has been an outspoken critic of violence and is eager to resume negotiations with Israel.

But the Karni attack, two days before Abbas was sworn in, swept away Israeli goodwill, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel suspended contacts with Abbas.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell urged Abbas in a phone call Sunday to rein in the armed groups, Palestinian and US officials said. Powell "emphasized the critical need to take action to stop Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets," US Consulate spokesman Chuck Hunter said.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed regret yesterday at the suspension of contacts.

"We were all hopeful that there was a new opening, a new opportunity that should be exploited to re-energize the process," he said. "And we are all going to do whatever we can with both sides to get the process back on track and to give the new Palestinian Authority as much help as we can with its own reform process, and particularly the restructuring of the security forces."

Israel wants Abbas to overhaul the Palestinians' numerous security agencies and put them under a central authority, accusing the security forces of permitting violence and even collaborating with attackers. Israeli officials say they have indications the gunmen who attacked the Karni crossing left from a Palestinian Authority base.

Israeli soldiers raided several areas in Gaza over the weekend to halt rocket fire on Israeli settlements and border towns, withdrawing early yesterday after clashes that killed 16 Palestinians, including seven civilians.

Israel decided to hold off on a major military offensive in Gaza to give Abbas more time to act against militants, a senior government official said yesterday.

During yesterday's Cabinet meeting, the Palestinian ministers instructed the Preventive Security Service, which controls the Palestinian side of crossings into Israel, to investigate the Karni attack. Three militant groups, including Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which has ties to Abbas's ruling Fatah movement, claimed responsibility.

Raanan Gissin, a Sharon aide, called the Cabinet decision a "small step in the right direction."

"Now we have to see how it happens on the ground, based on things that were said," he added.

Abbas will face a difficult task on his visit to Gaza. Hamas enjoys widespread support in the volatile area, and Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri said the group would not comply with the order to halt attacks.

However, Hamas leaders have said they would consider halting attacks if Israel stops military operations.

Since Sharon announced plans to withdraw from Gaza this summer, the area has seen an upsurge in violence, with militants trying to make it look like Israel is retreating under fire.

Yesterday, hundreds of people in the Israeli border town of Sderot packed a municipal square to protest the government's failure to stop repeated Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza.

In a separate development yesterday, Israeli warplanes twice bombed suspected Hezbollah targets along the border in southern Lebanon, wounding two women, after guerrillas blew up an Israeli bulldozer in a disputed area near the frontier, Lebanese security officials said. Israeli artillery pounded positions in the Chebaa Farms area, where the bulldozer attack took place, before fighter jets raided two nearby Lebanese border regions.

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