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Top Hamas Official Killed in West Bank, Witnesses Say

Hours after Israel's foreign minister called for the Palestinian Authority (search) to crack down on Hamas Saturday, Israeli troops shot dead a top official from the militant group, witnesses said.

The man was killed in the West Bank city of Hebron. Media reports identified him as Abdullah Kawasme, the senior Hamas (search) leader in the area.

Israeli troops cordoned off the area where the shooting took place, witnesses said. The army had no immediate comment.  

Earlier in the day, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (search) had said that the U.S.-backed peace plan wouldn't move forward until the Palestinian Authority decided to dismantle Hamas.

The comments came as Palestinians continued efforts to instead win a Hamas pledge to stop refrain from violence, and ahead of a meeting of European, U.S. and U.N. mediators to discuss ways of salvaging the "road map" peace plan.

Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) met Friday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search), who is holding truce talks with Hamas. U.S. envoy John Wolf has also been shuttling between the two sides.

On Sunday, Powell, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan — the so-called quartet of Mideast mediators who drafted the road map — were scheduled to meet in Jordan to discuss ways of rescuing the plan.

President Bush could dispatch National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice — whom he has called his "personal representative" to the Mideast peace process — to the region as early as next week, administration officials said.

The visit would be the latest in a series of high-level U.S. efforts to bolster the road map, which Bush launched at a June 4 Mideast summit. The plan, a blueprint for ending 33 months of violence and establishing a Palestinian state by 2005, has been hobbled by deadly bombings, shootings and missile strikes.

A total of 42 Palestinians — four of them assailants — and 27 Israelis have been killed in escalating violence since the plan was launched.

The casualties included a Palestinian man who died Saturday of injuries sustained in an Israeli missile strike that killed a Hamas activist last week.

Shalom said that Abbas has failed to make a "strategic decision" to crack down on Hamas' terror network, which in its latest attack claimed responsibility for killing a motorist and wounding three passengers — all Americans — in a West Bank shooting Friday.

"If we don't insist on this now, we won't be able to carry out the (peace) process," he told Israel Radio.

Shalom said he told Powell on Friday that "a cease-fire, which in itself is a ticking bomb, cannot be long-term."

"We cannot live in a situation in which the Palestinian extremists decide when this ticking bomb turns into a real bomb," he said.

Abbas has said from the outset that he does not have enough men under arms to force Hamas to disarm and has warned that a crackdown would trigger a civil war.

Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr said Saturday that a decision from the militant groups on whether to end attacks against Israelis could come within two days. "We discussed all the issues, and we hope that all the factions will respond as soon as possible," he said.

Hamas, which is coming under intense Arab and European pressure as well, said it had given no such undertaking.

"We did not say that we will respond within 24 hours or 48 hours," said Hamas spokesman Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who survived an Israeli missile strike last week. "Everything depends on when we are going to finish our consultations within the movement, and after that we will release our final decision."

Powell sided Friday with Israel in demanding that Abbas take decisive steps against Hamas, which he referred to as an "enemy of peace."

Israel has systematically targeted Palestinian security forces as a message to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that it holds him ultimately responsible for attacks on Israelis, even those carried out by Hamas and other opposition groups.

Palestinians say this largely destroyed their security services, rendering Israel's current demands of them impossible.

But Shalom said Palestinian security forces in Gaza were largely intact and number about 20,000. He acknowledged some might not be loyal to Abbas, but insisted: "We cannot say that the Palestinians are unable to dismantle the terror network."

In the first stage of the road map, the Palestinians must dismantle armed groups, while Israel must freeze Jewish settlement-building and gradually withdraw to positions held before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000.

After a Palestinian Cabinet meeting Saturday, Amr said the security forces were now ready to take control of most of Gaza and the West Bank city of Bethlehem, areas where Israel has offered to pull back its troops.

"We are ready to deploy our troops and to take over the security responsibility in any place that the Israeli army will withdraw from," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.