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US questions Sharon on settlement plan

Envoys discuss site expansion

JERUSALEM -- Two senior US envoys met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday to ask pointed questions about plans to expand the West Bank's largest Jewish settlement in violation of a peace plan, a US official said.

Israeli lawmakers said Sharon's government has revived a plan to build 3,500 new housing units around the settlement to encircle East Jerusalem with Jewish neighborhoods.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the settlement expansion was ''obviously the subject of discussions" at the meeting with National Security Council official Elliott Abrams and David Welch, assistant secretary of state for the Near East. ''I can tell you that the issue was raised," Ereli said, without giving details.

US officials have repeatedly objected to Israeli announcements of plans to expand Maaleh Adumim, home to 30,000 Israelis in the desert three miles east of Jerusalem.

Palestinians object to any Israeli construction in the West Bank and warn this could kill chances for peace by preventing creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital.

The US envoys ''were seeking clarification on statements made by the Israeli government with regard to settlement growth," Edgar Vasquez, a State Department spokesman, said before the meeting.

The US-backed ''road map" peace plan requires Israel to halt all construction in settlements, while demanding that the Palestinians dismantle violent groups responsible for attacks against Israelis.

Neither side fulfilled these initial obligations, and the plan has foundered since President Bush presented it in 2003.

However, the ''road map" plan has received renewed attention since a Feb. 8 summit declaration by Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas of an end to the bloodshed.

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