US & Canada

Obama condemns 'slaughter' as Mid-East talks open in US

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Media captionPresident Obama and PM Netanyahu condemn the West Bank killings

US President Barack Obama has condemned the "senseless slaughter" of four Israeli settlers, as a new round of Middle-East talks opens in Washington.

Mr Obama spoke after meeting Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, on the eve of the first direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in 20 months.

He later met Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and said progress was being made.

Mr Netanyahu said Tuesday's killings in the West Bank were committed by people who "butcher everything they oppose".

US, Israeli and Palestinian officials have all said they will not allow the shootings of the four Israelis to derail the new momentum in the long-stalled Middle East peace process.

But disagreement over Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank has also threatened to cast a pall over the talks.

The Israelis have said they will not renew a partial freeze on building homes for Jews there when it expires towards the end of this month, but the Palestinians say that without a freeze they will walk away from the talks.

In his meeting with Mr Obama, the Israeli prime minister told the president that any eventual agreement with the Palestinians must include security arrangements that put an end to terrorist threats against Israelis, an Israeli official travelling with Mr Netanyahu said.

Speaking later, Mr Obama said Thursday's direct negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders were "intended to resolve all final status issues".

Mr Obama said the goal of the talks, which are expected to last a year, was a permanent settlement that ended the Israeli "occupation" that began in 1967 and resulted in an independent, democratic Palestinian state existing peacefully beside a "Jewish state of Israel".

He said the US could not impose peace on the two parties and that the US cannot want peace more than them.

"This moment of opportunity may not soon come again," Mr Obama said. "They cannot afford to let it slip away."

And he praised Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu as leaders "who I believe want peace".

But shortly after Wednesday's bilateral talks, two Israelis were injured in another shooting in the West Bank.

Gunmen opened fire on their car at Rimonim Junction, near the Jewish settlement of Kochav Hashahar and east of the city of Ramallah.

The victims were a woman and a man, who was in a serious condition in hospital, officials said.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld blamed Palestinian militants for the attack.

'Unwavering support'

Meanwhile, Palestinian security forces have mounted a huge operation in the West Bank to catch the killers of the four Israeli settlers shot on Tuesday near Hebron.

Dozens of members of the Islamist movement Hamas, whose armed wing said it carried out the attack, have been arrested.

Israeli forces have also moved to seal off sections of the West Bank to search villages near Hebron.

A statement from Hamas members of the Palestinian parliament accused Mr Abbas of "siding with the Zionist enemy and continuing its project to abort and uproot the resistance".

Speaking after his talks with Mr Netanyahu, Mr Obama promised continued US support for Israel's security.

"I want everybody to be very clear," he said. "The United States is going to be unwavering in its support of Israel's security. And we are going to push back against these kinds of terrorist attacks.

"And so the message should go out to Hamas and everyone else who is taking credit for these heinous crimes that this is not going to stop us."

Mr Netanyahu said his talks with Mr Obama had been productive.

"I think that the president's statement is an expression of our desire to fight against this terror and the talks that we had, which were indeed open, productive, serious in the quest for peace," he said.

Mr Obama is taking turns on Wednesday to meet the Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian leaders before they all gather for a dinner at the White House.

On Thursday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is to hold discussions with the Israelis' and Palestinians' negotiating teams.

Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas are to then meet for the first face-to-face talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders since late 2008.

US officials said they wanted to at least get agreement from the two sides to meet again, possibly in the second week of September. Another meeting between Mr Obama, Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu could be held during the UN General Assembly at the end of the month.

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Media captionPresident Obama and PM Netanyahu condemn the West Bank killings