Mitchell presses truce amid Mideast violence

THURSDAY, JAN. 29, 2009

JERUSALEM – As Israeli-Hamas violence flared, President Barack Obama’s new Mideast envoy promised on Wednesday a vigorous push for peace, saying Gaza militants must end their weapons smuggling and the blockaded borders must be pried open if a cease-fire is to take hold.

George Mitchell held his first round of talks with regional leaders to determine the next steps the Obama administration would take toward reviving peace negotiations following Israel’s blistering military offensive against Gaza’s Islamic Hamas rulers.

But continued violence in Gaza underscored the more immediate priority – shoring up the 10-day-old cease-fire.

Hours before Mitchell arrived in Jerusalem, Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza smuggling tunnels in reprisal for a Palestinian bombing on Tuesday that killed an Israeli soldier. After he spoke, militants fired a rocket into Israel; the military responded with another airstrike. There was no immediate word of casualties.

After talks in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Mitchell said consolidating the cease-fire was “of critical importance.”

He said a longer-term truce should be based on “an end to smuggling and reopening of the crossings” into Gaza. Israel and Egypt have kept their borders with Gaza largely closed since the Islamic militant Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007.

Mitchell was silent on details of his meetings, and he has no news conferences planned during his seven-day tour, suggesting he would say little publicly before returning to Washington.

“The United States is committed to vigorously pursuing lasting peace and stability in the region,” Mitchell said.

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