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U.S., Jordan Seek Details of Sharon Plan for Gaza Withdrawal

By David Gollust (VOA-Washington)

Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Jordanian counterpart, Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, said on Tuesday that there are still many unanswered questions about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans for a pullout from Gaza. It was announced that a senior U.S. diplomatic team would leave for Israel Wednesday to pursue the issue further. Neither Powell nor Muasher are dismissing the Sharon proposals out of hand, especially the notion of an evacuation of most Israeli settlements from Gaza.

But in a talk with Washington reporters, both said more consultations were needed with Israel, before it could be determined if the Sharon ideas would advance, or sidetrack, the international "road map," which has been the basis of U.S. Middle East diplomacy.

Powell said the United States has a number of concerns, including, he suggested, the prospect of a security vacuum in Gaza, if the Palestinian Authority were not ready to or capable of controlling the area. "After the withdrawal of the settlements and the Israeli forces, what will be the arrangement in Gaza? Will the Palestinian Authority be prepared for the task of managing the region? So, there are as lot of questions of this nature," he said.

Muasher, for his part, questioned aloud whether Sharon's ideas for "disengagement" from the Palestinians are intended to complement, or replace, the road map. "It's important to know whether this will be a full withdrawal from Gaza, or not, whether this will be in connection with other withdrawals from the settlements in the West Bank, whether this is going to be done in the context of the 'road map,' or a replacement to it," he said. "There are many questions that need to be answered, here, and, I think, if they are answered in a proper way, that we are going to have an opportunity to finally move the 'road map' forward."

The secretary's meeting with the Jordanian foreign minister also dealt with the Bush administration's initiative for democratic reform in the Middle East, which has drawn a mixed reaction from Arab governments, several of which have said that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts should come first.

Muasher said the Arab states are not using the stalled peace process "as an excuse," but he said the reform process would be "aided to a great extent" by serious attention to, and resolution of, the conflict. Secretary Powell, for his part, reaffirmed the United States is not trying to impose reform on the region, and that such an attempt, in any case, "wouldn't work."

Mastermind of Achille Lauro Hijacking Dies

By Reuters

Mohammed Abbas, the Palestinian mastermind of the Achille Lauro cruise ship hijacking in 1985, has died of natural causes in U.S. custody in Iraq, U.S. and Palestinian officials said on Tuesday.

"We have been informed that Mohammed Abbas or Abu Abbas, head of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), who has been held in American custody, has died in Iraq," said a Palestinian official close to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat. He added that the death of Abbas, who was held by U.S. forces since April last year, was "related to his deteriorating health situation."

In Washington, a Defense Department spokesman confirmed Abbas's death. "Initial reports indicate that he apparently died of natural causes. Medical efforts to revive him were unsuccessful. An autopsy will be performed," the spokesman, Bryan Whitman, told reporters. He refused to say where Abbas died. Another defense official, who asked not to be identified, said he was being held in Iraq at the time of his death.

The U.S. military in Baghdad earlier said it had no information on the report. Members of Abbas' group in the West Bank and Gaza Strip said they were unaware Abbas' death. "We are still verifying this issue," said PLF spokesman Wasel Abu Yousef.

Abbas masterminded the hijacking of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro in October 1985 during which a wheelchair-bound American Jew, 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer, was killed and thrown into the sea. Abbas, who was not on board the ship during the attack, spent most of the past 17 years in Iraq, eluding U.S. and Italian officials. He was believed to be in his late 50s or early 60s.

The Iraqi-based PLF embarrassed the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership with the Achille Lauro hijacking and a failed sea-borne attack on Israel in 1990. Abbas later renounced violence when his pro-Arafat faction backed the PLO's decision to halt attacks against Israel after the 1993 Oslo peace accords were signed.

Italy released Abbas after U.S. warplanes intercepted his jet and forced it to land in Italy shortly after the Achille Lauro hijacking. But it tried Abbas and sentenced him to five life terms in prison after he had already left the country.

Washington dropped a warrant for Abbas' arrest several years ago and Israel declared him immune from prosecution over the hijacking in 1999 after he was allowed to return to Gaza by officials who concluded he was no longer involved in militancy.

After his capture, Washington said it wanted to bring Abbas to justice, but the issue became entangled in legal and diplomatic problems such as the possibility the U.S. statute of limitations had expired and extradition difficulties with Italy.

El Al Prices Deterring U.S. Jews from Vacation

By Ha'aretz

Jews from the United States who would like to come to spend Passover in Israel are being put off by the high price of tickets on El Al, the manager of a Jerusalem hotel said.

A flight from New York costs between $1,000-$1,200 per person, and this is too much for people who want to bring their families, says Ariella Shmida-Doron, manager of the Jerusalem Gold Hotel. "A person coming from Chicago has to fork out $1,500 for tickets. I have heard that religious travel agents in New York are talking about transferring passengers to Turkish Airlines, even though they would prefer to fly El Al," she says.

She said that it is not enough for the hotels to offer special deals for the holiday because the price of the ticket makes it impossible for many to come. "They ask me if El Al is cut off from the reality in Israel. The economic situation in the U.S. is also not so good and this makes traveling for Passover very problematic."

Yoav Levy, deputy manager for commerce at El Al, said he has not heard any complaints. "El Al tries to keep ahead of its competitors both with respect to its product and its prices. The company is keen to encouraging tourism to Israel. We offer a variety of prices and deals, which prove themselves, as, can be seen in the business figures of the company. El Al increased its section of the market in 2003 by 3.7 percent while the rest of the market shrunk by one percent," he added.

Meanwhile, the increase in tourism to Israel seen since the start of the year, continued into March. In the first week of this month, there were 56.2 percent more tourists than in the same period last year. In the first week of the month, 107,000 passengers passed through Ben-Gurion Airport, as compared with 69,000 in the same period last year. Of these, 54,000 were arrivals and 53.8 percent were departures. There were an additional 695 transit passengers.

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