Abbas Orders Crackdown

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

Abbas' security hike comes one day after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave his Israeli military free rein to act "without restrictions" against Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip. Abbas was sworn in as president of the Palestinian Authority two days ago.

The order, approved by Abbas' 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.
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.

"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 on Tuesday, a day earlier than initially planned, for talks with two militant groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Abbas' 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 Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suspended contacts with Abbas.

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

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed regret Monday 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 Monday 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 Monday.

During Monday'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' ruling Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the attack.

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.

"We consider resistance as a red line, and no one is allowed to cross this line," al-Masri said.

In his inaugural speech in last week, Abbas said he extends his hand in peace to Israel, called for a cease-fire and said he was committed to the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

However, he made no direct mention of how he would deal with the militants — the most pressing item on his agenda. Abbas only said he would enforce the rule of law and "deepen the dialogue" with various Palestinian factions, an apparent reference to his attempt to negotiate a cease-fire with militants.

Abbas did not refer to Israel's decision to suspend contacts until he takes action against the armed groups. Israel announced the boycott Friday, in response to the attack on the Gaza crossing, with one Israeli official saying the gunmen had apparently set out from a Palestinian Authority base.

Israeli officials welcomed Abbas' call to end violence, but said he must now translate that into action.

Secretary of State Colin Powell agreed, reports CBS News Correspondent Kimberly Dozier, saying it's up to the Palestinians to stop the violence.

But, former President Carter, who monitored the Palestinian election, told Dozier the White House can do more to kickstart progress on the Mideast peace roadmap it designed.

"I see the consummation of the road map proposal in the Mideast as one of the sterling opportunities for President Bush," Mr. Carter said.

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.

On Monday, 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.

Four residents have died in rocket attacks, and a teenage girl was critically wounded last weekend. Two more rockets fell on the town's outskirts Monday, but caused no injuries or damage.

  • Jaime Holguin

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