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Europe

Mideast Peace Hopes Dampened

Despite renewed diplomatic efforts, including the German Foreign Minister, Israeli troops have resumed army operations in the West Bank.

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Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, left, during talks with his German counterpart, Joschka Fischer

Israeli forces have moved into the towns of Tulkarm and Bethlehem in the latest in a series of fresh incursions in the West Bank.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat described the incursions as being aimed at "bringing our people to their knees".

The incursions overshadowed a recent flurry of peace diplomacy, including a trip to the Middle East by Germany’s foreign minister, Joschka Fischer.

Calls for international meeting

The European Union has also been continuing its diplomatic efforts in the region.

Foreign policy chief Javier Solana - in Beirut for talks with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud - called for an international meeting to be held before July.

"The time has come to launch an initiative of a political nature in the form of an international conference or meeting," he said.

He said the US sponsored international Middle East peace conference set for the second half of July must not be postponed.

German foreign minister Joschka Fischer echoed Solana's comments, warning a delay in the talks would kill the project.

"Unless this conference takes place soon, it will suffer the fate of the proposal of former US Senator Mitchell, meaning that it turns from a living idea to a amantra," he said, referring to a never-implemented truce-to-talks plan drawn up by a US led international commission last year.

The calls for the conference come as United States officials said earlier this week that the conference would have to be postponed until later in the year die to the amount of groundwork still needed to be done.

However, "we must se to it that we get this going before the summer break (in August)", Fischer said, as the closer we come to the US congressional elections, the more American domestics come into play".

Palestinians detained

Meanwhile Israeli tanks and troops remain entrenched in the West Bank town of Nablus, where security forces reportedly arrested around a hundred Palestinians early on Saturday.

Dozens of armoured personel carriers and several Israeli tanks took up position in Nablus on Friday. Palestinian officials said Israeli missiles destroyed a generator, cutting off power supplies to the local population, and that dozens of people were detained.

Palestinian leaderYasser Arafat said the raids were evidence Israel was not interested in making peace.

Meanwhile, US Assistant secretary of State William Burns held talks with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in Jersualem.

Burns said it was imperative the proposed international regional peace conference take place as soon as possible.

But Sharon repeated Israels insistence on a complete cessation of terror, violence and incitement, and the reform of the Palestinian Authority before any diplomatic progress could be made.