Abbas is hoping that his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon will put forward proposals for the withdrawal of its troops from at least two cities in the West Bank in the coming weeks when the pair meets for talks on Sunday, the source in Ramallah added.

 

Israel has so far only withdrawn from the West Bank town of Bethlehem and most of the Gaza Strip but the Palestinians are understood to have identified four areas -- Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron and Jenin -- where they expect further withdrawals soon.

 

Elections

 

Meanwhile, preparations are underway to hold municipal elections in the occupied territories in the coming months, Palestinian local government minister Jamal Shubaki said in Ramallah on Friday.

  

A commission is to be set up make the necessary preparations, and electoral laws may have to be amended, Shubaki said. Since the Palestinian Authority gained control of parts of the territories in 1994, it has not organized municipal elections.

 

The last such polls were held in the West Bank under Israeli occupation in the mid-1970s.

 

In Brussels, the European Union reaffirmed on Friday its determination to keep talking to Palestinian President Yasir Arafat despite Israeli and US pressure to shun him as tainted by "terrorism".

 

Arafat (L): No one can
afford to sideline him

European Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin said maintaining a dialogue with Arafat, the elected leader of the Palestinian people, would boost rather than harm Mahmoud Abbas who is conducting new peace talks with Israel.

   

"We believe that contacts with President Arafat do nothing to undermine his prime minister. In fact, those contacts may indeed be helpful," Udwin told a news briefing.

 

Italy's doubt

   

She was speaking after Italy, which now holds the rotating EU presidency, appeared to cast doubt on the bloc's line by suggesting Europe should not focus on Arafat at the expense of its place as a co-sponsor of the "road map" plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

   

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Abbas discussed by phone on Friday a possible EU role in monitoring the implementation of the road map, a statement from Berlusconi's office said.

   

Israel and the United States have sidelined Arafat, accusing him of fomenting violence in a 33-month-old Palestinian uprising. Arafat denies that.