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U.S. envoy pursuing peace; Sharon vetoes cease-fire talk

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JERUSALEM — A U.S. envoy is resuming a Mideast truce mission this week, officials said Tuesday, as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vetoed a plan by Israel's president to appear before the Palestinian parliament to declare a yearlong cease-fire.

Also Tuesday, Israeli tanks pulled out of the West Bank town of Nablus, Palestinian security officials said.

The U.S. mediator, retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, will arrive in the region on Thursday and stay for four days, said Paul Patin, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.

Zinni will ask Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to dismantle militant groups and will urge Sharon to ease restrictions on the Palestinians, Patin said. The focus of the mission is to shore up a truce and move toward implementing various steps that are to lead to renewed peace talks.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he expected Zinni to set a timetable for the measures, detailed last year in a truce agreement negotiated by CIA chief George Tenet and in a series of recommendations by an international commission led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.

Zinni broke off his first Mideast mission in mid-December amid a sharp escalation of violence, including a series of attacks on Israeli civilians by Palestinian militants. At the time, U.S. officials criticized Arafat for not doing enough to prevent such attacks.

There has been a significant drop in violence since Arafat renewed his call for a truce Dec. 16 and arrested scores of members of the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups.

However, Israel's government has said Arafat needs to do more before it can begin implementing the Mitchell recommendations, including a freeze in Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza.

Sharon, meanwhile, blocked a proposal that Israeli President Moshe Katsav appear before the Palestinian parliament in the West Bank town of Ramallah and declare a year-long truce with the Palestinians.

Sharon told Katsav that he strongly disapproves of the idea, said a senior Sharon aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Sharon suspects the proposal is a public relations ploy by Arafat, and that Katsav has been misled, the aide said.

Israel radio quoted the president as saying he was "disappointed" by Sharon's veto.

The idea of the Katsav speech was first raised by a former Israeli Arab legislator, Abdel Wahab Darawsheh, who referred to the truce to be declared as a "hudna," a term from Arab tribal law describing a specific period of non-belligerence. Darawsheh said the plan had Arafat's backing, and Katsav, a member of Sharon's right-wing Likud party, indicated he was interested.

The role of the Israeli president is largely ceremonial, and it is unusual for the president to get involved in policy-making.

According to the Yediot Ahronot daily, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres also opposed the plan. "We are trying to produce a cease-fire for generations, forever," Peres told the newspaper. "We want to end the cycle of terror and not just for a single year, as the president proposes."

Peres has been holding informal talks with Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia on a framework for a possible peace deal. As a first step toward a treaty, before tackling the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees, Israel would recognize a Palestinian state. However, the two sides remain far apart on the dimensions of such a state.

Also Tuesday, Palestinian security officials reported that Israeli tanks have pulled out of Nablus, one of several Palestinian cities where troops had taken up positions after a string of Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians. The Israel military said it was checking the reports.

In northern Israel, some Israelis became panicked Tuesday after the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia sent 40 helium balloons across the border. The residents feared the balloons contained explosives, but instead they had large pictures of Arafat and signs with Hezbollah slogans attached to them. They landed in an open field after drifting about six miles into Israel.