Annan praises Mitchell report on Middle East

Annan praises Mitchell report on Middle East

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday praised a call by a U.S.-led fact-finding panel for a freeze on the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, an appeal Israel has rejected.

Annan said the committee led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell had produced a report on the causes of Middle East violence that was "fair and balanced" and could help revive the peace process if fully implemented.

The Palestinians have said they back the entire 32-page report by the Mitchell Committee.

But a senior Israeli official said in Jerusalem on Monday that Israel would formally reject the report's appeal for a freeze on Jewish settlements, which are built on land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and are illegal under international law.

The Israeli government also planned to reject the report's criticism of the army's use of lethal force against unarmed Palestinian demonstrators, but accepted all its other recommendations, the official said.

A U.N. spokesman said Annan had written U.S. President George W. Bush "to express his appreciation for the committee's emphasis on the need for a halt to all settlement activity, to support the call for maximum effort to control violence in all its forms, and to stress the economic and social crisis facing the Palestinian people."

The U.N. leader congratulated Mitchell and committee members "for having produced a fair and balanced analysis of the causes of the present crisis," the spokesman said.

"The Secretary-General believes that full implementation of the report's recommendations could, in conjunction with the Jordanian-Egyptian initiative, help build a bridge back to negotiations towards a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East," the spokesman said in a printed statement.

The Jordanian-Egyptian initiative calls for a cease-fire, an Israeli withdrawal to previous troop positions, implementation of old interim agreements and a resumption of talks on a permanent agreement.

Israel and the Palestinians have until Tuesday to formally respond to the findings of the five-member Mitchell Committee, established under the terms of a never-implemented cease-fire accord reached at an emergency Middle East summit at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh last October.

Palestinians have conditioned any renewal of peace talks on Israel freezing activity in the Jewish settlements.

The Israeli government has said it will not build any new settlements but wants to let existing settlements expand to accommodate a growing population. It has ruled out resuming talks until there is an end to Palestinian violence.

At least 420 Palestinians, 79 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed in the revolt that erupted in the region last September after peace talks reached a stalemate.

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