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Rice praises Palestinians' response to suicide bombing

LONDON—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday praised the Palestinian leadership's response to a deadly suicide bombing that ruptured a truce with Israel, even as she called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to take bolder steps against militants.

Rice, trying to sustain the fragile momentum behind an Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement, said Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had reacted with "considerable maturity" to the bombing Friday in Tel Aviv, which killed five Israelis.

Abbas immediately called for a joint investigation and promised to punish those responsible. Palestinian Authority officials have arrested several people.

Israel charges that a Syrian-based cell of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group that rejects peace with Israel, was behind the bombing, and it has launched a diplomatic campaign to press its case. The Syrian group's leadership claimed responsibility, but its Gaza faction denied it.

Sharon has halted, at least temporarily, a plan to withdraw Israeli troops from several Palestinian cities and to release Palestinian prisoners.

Rice said, "We don't have any confirmation of whether there was foreign involvement" in the attack.

But she was generous in her comments on Abbas, whom the Bush administration is relying on as a peacemaker. She contrasted his words and deeds after the bombing with those of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom Sharon and President Bush accused of doing little to stop terrorism.

"I don't think we are into the same old pattern," Rice said aboard her aircraft. "The statements of the Palestinian Authority were clearer ... than anything that we saw in the old days."

Rice and other international leaders are in London for a conference Tuesday to accelerate Palestinian reforms of government and security institutions. Abbas is expected to attend.

"What we would hope to hear from President Abbas ... is that there is a concerted effort, a concerted will to fight the rejectionists in every way possible," Rice said.

The first phase of the U.S.-backed "road map" for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "requires the Palestinian Authority to deal with terrorism and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure," she noted.

The Palestinian leadership has been split on how to deal with armed militants. Some, such as Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, have argued against armed confrontation, and for a strategy of co-option.

In the bombing's aftermath, Israel has demanded that the Palestinians move to dismantle militant groups. Rice appeared to second that view.

"Obviously when you have Palestinian Islamic Jihad taking responsibility, then something needs to be done about that, because they are clearly challenging directly the Palestinian Authority, and the Palestinian Authority has said there should be `one gun, one authority, one law,'" the secretary said.

Thirty nations and organizations are attending Tuesday's conference, which will try to coordinate assistance to the Palestinian Authority in three ways: solidifying democratic institutions, streamlining and training effective security forces and delivering rapid economic assistance to show the Palestinian populace that Abbas' approach has tangible benefits.

Rice is expected to aggressively lobby Gulf Arab states, particularly Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, to pay $400 million in assistance to the Palestinians that they've promised but never delivered, according to U.S. and European diplomats.

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

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