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Truce talks end without agreement; Israeli troops raid three West Bank villages

(JERUSALEM) - U.S.-supervised truce talks ended without agreement early Thursday, with Israelis and Palestinians arguing over who should take the first steps, and hours later Israel staged arrest raids in three West Bank villages.

Despite wide gaps, three-way truce talks were to resume later Thursday, and agreement on a cease-fire was widely expected before Monday _ the tentative date, according to Palestinian officials, for a meeting between Vice President Dick Cheney and Yasser Arafat in Cairo. Cheney said earlier this week he would only meet with the Palestinian leader once a cease-fire was in place.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a Cheney-Arafat meeting early next week was ``certainly possible,'' and suggested the timing was intended, in part, to make sure Israel lifted its travel ban on Arafat ahead of next week's crucial Arab summit in Beirut.

The United States wants Arafat to be able to attend the summit, during which Saudi Arabia is to present a plan offering Israel peace with the Arab world in exchange for a withdrawal from all occupied territories. The groundbreaking plan _ which, if adopted, would be the first such offer by the Arab world _ has been welcomed by the United States, the United Nations and the European Union. Saudi Arabia has said it would not present the plan in Arafat's absence.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has linked Arafat's departure from the Palestinian territories to a cease-fire. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Thursday that Israel has already promised Cheney that if he invites Arafat, Israel would let the Palestinian leader go. ``We have said this both to Cheney and to Arafat, and what we said is binding,'' Peres told Israel Radio.

In the latest round of truce talks, based on an agreement brokered last year by CIA chief George Tenet, Israelis and Palestinians remained far apart on a timetable and the sequence of steps required by both sides.

Israel wants to implement the plan in four to five weeks _ double the time envisioned by the Palestinians, participants said.

Israel says in the first stage, the Palestinians must disarm militias and arrest suspected militants, while the Palestinians insist that Israel first withdraw its troops to positions they held before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000.

Despite the difficulties, both sides were optimistic. ``This is the continuation of tough bargaining,'' said Israeli Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh. ``It is not simple, but it has more of a chance now than a short time ago.''

The Palestinian security chief in the West Bank, Jibril Rajoub, said the gaps were ``huge,'' but that both sides are working hard to bridge them.

U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni is working on a bridging proposal, to be presented to the two sides on Friday, said a Palestinian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

After the last round of talks ended early Thursday, Israeli troops raided three Palestinian-controlled villages near the West Bank town of Jenin and arrested more than 20 people, Palestinian officials said. In the village of Yamoun, troops arrested five brothers because they couldn't find the sixth, who is wanted, the officials said.

The army confirmed the raids, and said troops withdrew once the sweeps were completed. Palestinian officials said soldiers remained on the outskirts of the villages.

Earlier this week, under U.S. pressure, Israel had withdrawn from Palestinian-run territory as part of truce efforts. The withdrawal ended the largest Israeli military operation in a generation, aimed at hunting down suspected militants.

On Wednesday, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up an Israeli bus on a main highway in Israel's north, killing seven other passengers, including four soldiers, and wounding more than 20. The militant Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility.

The bomber crossed into an area of Israel where many Israeli Arabs live, near the West Bank. Media reports said he spent the night in the Israeli Arab town of Umm el-Fahm. Early Wednesday morning, he boarded a bus near the town and blew it up, though it was inevitable that Israeli Arabs would be among the casualties.

The Palestinian Authority criticized the bomb attack.

``The Palestinian leadership's efforts are concentrated right now on ending the Israeli aggression and lifting the siege and putting an end to the collective punishment,'' said a statement by the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa. ``This requires from all not to do any military operations against civilians inside Israel.''

Islamic Jihad identified the bomber as Rafat Abu Diyak, 24, and said the attack was revenge for Israel's killing of group members in recent military strikes. Israel's recent raids included an incursion into Diyak's hometown of Jenin earlier this month, aimed at rooting out militants.

After the attack, Diyak's father Tahseen accepted condolences at the family's home in a poor neighborhood in Jenin. ``Thank God for everything, my son will go to heaven,'' Tahseen Diyak said.

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