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Palestinians welcome new Israeli opposition leader

Senior Palestinian officials on Wednesday welcomed a call by Israel's new opposition leader Amram Mitzna to restart peace talks but held back outright endorsement _ apparently fearing it would hurt the ex-general's chances in January elections.

Many Palestinians are eager for the removal of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who _ during 20 months in office _ has ravaged the Palestinian security forces, waged an intense crackdown against militant groups and sent troops to reoccupy and impose curfews on most Palestinian cities in the West Bank.

Palestinian Parliament speaker Ahmed Qureia said Mitzna's easy victory in the Labor Party primary Tuesday "renews the hope of reviving the peace process . . . ending the violence and reaching a final solution based on two states living side by side in peace and security."

Palestinian Cabinet minister and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said he hoped "the Israeli people elect a leadership that will take them on a path of peace, not a leadership that will lead them to more settlements and reoccupation."

But Sharon's Likud Party is the heavy favorite in the Jan. 28 general election, and some Palestinian officials said there was little the Palestinians could do to swing Israeli voters to Mitzna.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat struck the most cautious note. "We are not interfering in (Israel's) internal affairs," Arafat said. "Our hands will be extended" to any Israeli leader prepared to negotiate.

Mitzna told Israeli Radio the Palestinian statements could be a good sign.

"If the biggest of our enemies is congratulating me on my election, perhaps that is a sign that in the future there will be someone with whom to talk and something to talk about," he said.

In the West Bank, violence continued Wednesday.

Israeli troops killed a Palestinian teenager during clashes in Tulkarem, where fighting the day before claimed five Palestinian lives. In the village of Ellar, near Ramallah, a Palestinian was killed when a bomb he was preparing exploded prematurely. No one else was injured.