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Mitchell turns attention toward volatile Mideast

US President Barack Obama's new Mideast envoy turned his attention to the Western-backed Palestinian government in the West Bank yesterday, seeking to prop up a Gaza cease-fire and restart broader peace talks even as rockets thudded into southern Israel and Israeli warplanes attacked new targets.

George Mitchell was seen entering Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah and was due to meet later in the day with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

He is not meeting with Hamas, which the United States, Israel and European Union have blacklisted as a terrorist group.

Mitchell, a former US Senate majority leader and a broker of the 1998 Northern Ireland peace deal, held his first round of talks with regional leaders in Cairo and Jerusalem on Wednesday to study the next steps Obama would take toward reviving peace talks after Israel's military attacks against Gaza's Hamas rulers.

But a flare-up of Gaza violence underscored the more immediate priority - shoring up the 10-day-old cease-fire. Palestinians fired a rocket into Israel early yesterday, and residents of the south Gaza town of Khan Younis said an Israeli air-strike there wounded a man riding a motorcycle and five passers-by, among them children walking home from school.

The Israeli military said it targeted the motorcyclist because he was involved in a bomb attack on Tuesday on the Gaza-Israel border which killed an Israeli soldier and wounded three others.

On Wednesday Israeli warplanes struck Gaza smuggling tunnels and a weapons factory. There were no reports of any casualties.

Israel and Hamas separately declared a cease-fire on January 18, ending a three-week Israeli offensive that killed nearly 1,300 Palestinians and caused widespread destruction in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Thirteen Israelis also died in the fighting. Israel launched the operation to end years of rocket fire on its southern towns.

International diplomats have been trying to work out arrangements for a longer-range truce. Israel wants an end to Hamas rocket attacks and weapons smuggling. Hamas wants Israel to end a crippling economic blockade of Gaza's borders, imposed after the militant group seized power in June 2007.

After talks in Jerusalem on Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Mitchell said consolidating the cease-fire was "of critical importance." He said a longer-term truce should be based on "an end to smuggling and reopening of the crossings" into Gaza.

Mitchell's Mideast foray signaled Obama's willingness to make the region a priority.


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