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Prince To Push Peace Plan

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah plans to seek wide Arab support for a plan to restart stalled peace talks with Israel ahead of an Arab summit next month, the spokeswoman for an EU envoy who met the prince Wednesday said.

"We found him (Prince Abdullah) very determined to press forward and determined that his suggestions become the suggestions of the Arab countries," said Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

"He wants his ideas, his initiatives to become the initiatives of the Arab world" at the summit in Beirut, she said upon Solana's arrival in Cairo from Saudi Arabia. Since Saudi King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, the crown prince has been the kingdom's de facto ruler.

A tense meeting between Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs ended early Wednesday without a clear agreement on how to end 17 months of fighting, but a new Saudi peace initiative generated some hope on both sides.

Meanwhile, the violence continued. Israeli troops killed three Palestinian gunmen in a gun battle on the Israeli-Egyptian border Wednesday, Israeli security sources said.

Two Israeli soldiers were wounded in the clash with the gunmen who were trying to infiltrate into Israel near Mount Harif in the Negev desert, the sources said.

In the West Bank, a Palestinian militiaman was killed before dawn Wednesday as he tried to plant a bomb near Israeli tanks on the outskirts of the West Bank refugee camp of Balata, where a militia leader and hundreds of gunmen are holed up.

A Palestinian man shot and killed an Israeli worker at a factory north of Jerusalem, police said. Israel radio said a group linked to Fatah claimed responsibility.

In an interview with The New York Times published last week, Prince Abdullah aired an initiative with little elaboration that resurrected an Arab offer to normalize relations with Israel in return for full withdrawal from Arab lands occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

Gallach said Prince Abdullah told Solana he intended to consult with the Arab League and Arab capitals "in order to prepare the Beirut meeting of March 27 and 28."

Hailed by the Palestinians, given a cautious welcome in Israel and praised by Washington, the Saudi proposal has gained momentum after 17 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence that international diplomacy has been powerless to stop.

Solana, who cut short his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories to travel to Jeddah, is the most senior diplomat to discuss the initiative with Abdullah face-to-face since he first floated his ideas in mid-February.

Learn more about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The proposal, which lays out a long-term vision of Middle East peace, calls for Israel to withdraw from lands it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war in return for Arab recognition of the Jewish state.

"I think the message is very serious," Solana told reporters in Jerusalem on Wednesday morning. "It's a message being brought by an important messenger. It brings hope."

Militia leader Nasser Awais, 32, in Balata, said he and his followers would not halt attacks until the Palestinians won independence.

"We are busy all the time finding (Israeli) targets, and we will strike where we can," Awais, head of the Al Aqsa Brigades militia in the West Bank town of Nablus and adjacent Balata, said in a telephone interview.

The militia is linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, and has claimed responsibility for recent shooting attacks.

In the security talks late Tuesday, Israeli officials demanded that their Palestinian counterparts prevent attacks and dismantle Fatah-affiliated militias, said Yarden Vatikay, an adviser to Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.

Vatikay said the Israeli officials told the Palestinians that where they cracked down on militants, Israel would "ease off." He said the Palestinians promised to take some action, but that Israel remained skeptical.

Palestinian officials were not immediately available for comment. However, the Palestinians have said they expected Israel to present a timetable for easing travel bans in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Vatikay made no reference to such a plan.

The meeting was held in Tel Aviv, in the presence of U.S. officials. It began Tuesday evening and ended early Wednesday.