Annan Tells Mideast Foes to Seize Moment

From Reuters

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged Palestinians and Israelis on Saturday to "seize the moment" to transform a delicate cease-fire into a strengthened peace effort.

Annan met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon late Saturday after talks with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in the West Bank. He called on both sides to shore up the U.S.-brokered truce and end more than eight months of bloodshed.

A day of relative calm was broken late Saturday when a Palestinian boy was killed, apparently by Palestinian gunfire around the town of Rafah in the Gaza Strip.

Witnesses said the incident occurred when residents of the area tried to stop Palestinian gunmen shooting at an Israeli army base from a place adjacent to their homes.

A heavy exchange of fire between gunmen and Israeli troops raged in Rafah into the night. The army said at least 20 grenades were thrown at soldiers.

At least five Palestinians were wounded in Rafah and six others were hurt in a stone-throwing protest near the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza.

"I think we have an opportunity, but a brief one, and we should seize the moment," the U.N. chief said at a joint news conference with Arafat. "So I appeal to everyone to work for peace, for the sake of the people, for the sake of the region and for the sake of the two parties involved."

Annan's trip rounded off a slew of international visits to the region aimed at ending the violence that has cost nearly 600 lives.

Both sides maintain that they are committed to carrying out the cease-fire, but each accuses the other of violating crucial steps drawn up by the architect of the truce plan, CIA chief George J. Tenet, last week.

"Unfortunately, the situation is very difficult and nothing has changed on the ground," Arafat said at the news conference with Annan. "It's impossible to move on any of the roads."

Sharon said in a statement after meeting Annan that "any advance in the [political] process is conditional first and foremost on the total cessation of terror, violence and incitement."

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