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Mideast Quartet meets amid tensions

The international Quartet for the Middle East meets in Moscow on Friday for a crucial meeting amid rising tensions after Israel's controversial announcement of new settler homes.

world Updated: Mar 19, 2010 07:45 IST

The international Quartet for the Middle East meets in Moscow on Friday for a crucial meeting amid rising tensions after Israel's controversial announcement of new settler homes.

The Quartet -- made up of the United States, the United Nations, European Union and Russia -- is expected to pressure Israel after its announcement of the construction of 1,600 new settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem.

The Israeli announcement led the Palestinians to call for a halt to peace talks and precipitated the worst crisis in US-Israeli relations in years, with senior US officials warning the plans jeopardized the peace process.

They also called the announcement's timing an "insult", coming as US Vice President Joe Biden visited the region.

The meeting will include UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Ashton's visit will come a day after she made a rare trip by a top foreign official to the Gaza Strip.

A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip on Thursday killed a Thai agricultural worker who was killed when it slammed into an Israeli kibbutz just a few kilometres from the Gaza border.

Israel replied early Friday with air strikes on Gaza, but there were no reports of any serious casualties according to eye-witnesses and Palestinian security officials.

The Moscow meeting will "demonstrate international support" for indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians, said US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley who is accompanying Clinton.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called Clinton late Thursday, Crowley said.

"They discussed specific actions that might be taken to improve the atmosphere for progress toward peace," he added.

A statement from Netanyahu's office said he had suggested "mutual confidence-building measures" that could be carried out by Israel and the Palestinians, but gave no details.

The gathering is also a chance for Russia to reassert its status as a major player in the region, where it has seen its influence slip away after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Russia has contacts with Palestinian militant group Hamas as well as maintaining cordial ties with Israel. It believes it is in a strong position to help bring about peace.

A senior Palestinian official told AFP on Thursday that the United States' special Middle East envoy George Mitchell would arrive in the region on Sunday for a visit that had been delayed by the row with Israel.

Originally, he had been scheduled for talks in Israel and the West Bank this week, but the visit was postponed after the settlement announcement.

Crowley however said later that Mitchell would meet with both sides "at some point after the Quartet meeting" although it remained to be determined when.

"The follow-on meetings to the Quartet are not set," he said.

"When we feel we have an understanding as to where both parties are and there's sufficient progress to justify meetings, we'll hold meetings."