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Sharon tells Abbas that Palestinians must crack down on militants

JERUSALEM—Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday threatened to cut off recently renewed contact with the Palestinian Authority and step up military actions if Palestinian leaders failed to crack down on militant groups.

Sharon delivered the warning before his weekly cabinet meeting two days after a Palestinian suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed four Israelis and wounded dozens more.

His government also suspended talks on a planned release of 400 Palestinian prisoners and the handover over five West Bank cities to Palestinian control.

"Israel has been showing restraint in order to facilitate progress," Sharon said. "But it is clear that if the Palestinians do not begin to take vigorous action against terrorism, Israel will be compelled to step up military activity."

The Israeli warnings are the first against Mahmoud Abbas since he was elected president of the Palestinian Authority on Jan. 9 and they signaled Israel's growing impatience over his refusal to deal more aggressively with militant groups.

Israel has repeatedly demanded that Abbas dismantle and disarm the groups and arrest its leaders, much as the Palestinian Authority did in 1996. Abbas and his security chiefs have chosen to cajole and co-opt, rather than crush the groups for fear of starting a Palestinian civil war.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Sunday that "it will be sorrowful, but we will not shed tears" if Israel cuts ties to the Palestinians. Nevertheless, he expressed hope that the dialogue begun between Sharon and Abbas at their Feb. 8 summit in Egypt would continue.

On Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz sent Palestinian leaders a list of wanted militants and demanded they be arrested. There was no immediate Palestinian response, although police on Saturday took the rare step of arresting three suspected militants.

Meanwhile, the four Israeli victims of the suicide bombing outside a popular Tel Aviv karaoke club were buried Sunday. One of those killed, Yael Orbach, 28, had been handing out invitations to her friends for her mid-March wedding when the blast occurred. Her fiance remained hospitalized yesterday with wounds suffered in the explosion.

Sharon, in a phone conversation Sunday afternoon with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said that as long as Abbas "takes no tangible steps against the terrorist organizations, including their disbandment," suicide and gun attacks against Israeli citizens would continue. "Israel cannot accept this," he told Rice, according to a statement issued by his office.

The stepped up criticism comes on the heels of Israeli intelligence reports that the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah was not involved in the bombing, as Palestinian officials earlier suggested. Hezbollah is actively seeking to scuttle budding Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, but Friday's bombing was solely the work of the Syrian-based leadership of Islamic Jihad, an Israeli security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim warned on state-run Israel Radio that Israel may again attack Syria, accused of harboring the headquarters of the Islamic Jihad. Israel conducted bombing raids on the group's training facilities south of Damascus in October 2003, following a suicide bombing at the Maxim restaurant in Haifa that killed 21.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Mohammed Najib contributed to this report from Ramallah, West Bank.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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