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Agreement To Halt Mideast Fighting Seems Imminent

While some touchy issues still exist, a breakthrough to halt fighting between Israel and militant Islamic guerrillas seemed within reach Thursday night after feverish diplomatic efforts by Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Christopher flew back to Israel after midnight with general acceptance by the leaders of Syria and Lebanon of an American proposal to halt more than three weeks of violence across the Lebanese border.

“We are making steady progress in these negotiations,” State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said upon Christopher’s arrival here after a pair of meetings in Damascus with Syrian President Hafez Assad. “However, there are some issues that still remain.”

But the warm greeting that Israeli officials gave the American delegation suggested a deal was imminent. There were handshakes and even a backslap or two as Christopher’s group descended from the U.S. Air Force jet at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv.

Christopher planned what he hoped would be a final session at breakfast today with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Israel’s fierce bombardment of south Lebanon generated criticism from many nations - but not the Clinton administration, which has blamed Hezbollah for the conflict.

The agreement would not shield Israeli soldiers in a buffer zone from guerrilla attack, but it also does not call for Israel to withdraw, as Hezbollah has been fighting to accomplish, U.S. officials said.