Palestinians had been preparing to take control in the city of Ramallah, as well as Qalqilya, Jericho and Tulkarem on Tuesday but talks between Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz and former Palestinian security minister Mohammed Dahlan on the issue Monday night broke up without agreement.

Mr Dahlan told reporters no date for a transfer had been agreed and that he would meet with Mr Mofaz again on Thursday “to conclude an agreement on all the points of understanding.”

Israel had appeared ready to hand over responsibility to the Palestinians in parts of the West Bank after they had managed to put a halt to attacks by militant groups in the Gaza Strip.

However, a spate of mortar shelling by the radical Islamist group Hamas on Monday, in response to the killing of a Palestinian schoolgirl, and further attacks on Tuesday have underlined the limitations of the Palestinian forces.

Israeli sources said Mr Mofaz had told Mr Dahlan there would be no transfers in the West Bank until there was a complete halt to the mortar attacks in Gaza.

While Hamas claimed responsibility for the attacks on Monday, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and Islamic Jihad said Tuesday that they had fired shells at a settlement in northern Gaza.

Israeli military sources also said three mortar rounds had hit settlements in southern Gaza Tuesday but without causing injuries. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

New Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas had managed to persuade groups such as Hamas to observe an unofficial “cooling down” period but eight militant factions issued a statement on Monday night threatening to resume attacks.

Mr Dahlan, however, warned that the Palestinian Authority would not allow “any group to just do what it wants and impose their will on the Palestinian leadership.”

Israel is adamant that its troops were not responsible for the killing of the schoolgirl, suggesting that she may have been shot by celebratory gunfire from Palestinians who were returning from the Muslim pilgrimage in Mecca.

“Immediately after the news of the death, we opened an inquiry which has established that our forces did not open fire at any time on Monday in the area,” an army spokesman said.

Mr Abbas is in Turkey this week on the latest leg of a four-nation tour after flying out of Moscow.

After talks with Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Mr Abbas said “we are making progress towards realising the desired peace in the region”.

Mr Abbas said he had discussed with Mr Sezer the need to take the US-backed roadmap for a settlement as the basis of a “comprehensive, lasting and just peace”.

“Security and peace in the region can be made possible only through the implementation of this roadmap,” he added.

The roadmap aims for the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel but has made next to no progress since its launch in June 2003 amid the continuing violence on the ground.

In an interview with a Russian newspaper published Tuesday, Mr Abbas made an unprecedented criticism of his late predecessor Yasser Arafat, saying “there were black stains in his policy.”

“In the West, he (Arafat) was viewed completely differently than by us. They called him a terrorist, charged him with resisting reform and not fulfilling his commitments in negotiations. He was seen as a dictator,” he told the Kommersant daily.

“We of course cannot ignore this negative side” to Arafat’s rule, he added.

Meanwhile, Israeli public television reported that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would meet with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman Wednesday amid setbacks to the growing rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinians.

The previously unannounced meeting will be devoted to the latest “difficulties” between Israel and the Palestinians, the report said.

Egypt has traditionally played a key role in the Middle East peace process.

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