CAIRO (AFP) — New US peace envoy George Mitchell kicked off a Middle East tour in key ally Egypt on Tuesday, charged by President Barack Obama to "engage vigorously" to achieve real progress in the region.
Mitchell arrived with violence still simmering in the Gaza Strip after Israel ended its deadly 22-day onslaught, with one Palestinian shot dead and an Israeli soldier killed in the latest flare-up.
The US envoy met with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana at Cairo airport before the European envoy departed after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on shoring up a fragile Gaza ceasefire.
Mitchell will meet Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit later on Tuesday ahead of talks on Wednesday with Mubarak, whose country receives around two billion dollars a year in American aid -- second only to Israel.
Cairo has been in the vanguard of efforts to negotiate a lasting truce between Israel and Hamas, as well as to reconcile the Islamists with their rivals from Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah faction.
A week after his historic inauguration, Obama told Al-Arabiya satellite channel that he did not want expectations raised too high for swift progress following the Gaza war, although he said progress was still achievable.
"I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people," Obama said.
"Instead, it's time to return to the negotiating table."
Obama, promising to be more actively engaged in Middle East diplomacy than his predecessor George W. Bush, set the tone for the trip after meeting Mitchell, who is due to visit Israel, the Palestinian West Bank, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
In the short term, the trip is aimed at bolstering a ceasefire that went into effect in Gaza on January 18 and at tackling the humanitarian crisis in the impoverished Palestinian territory.
"The charge that Senator Mitchell has is to engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress," Obama said after talks at the White House attended also by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"It is not something that we're going to be able to do overnight," Obama cautioned, but added he was confident of progress if Washington is engaged in the process.
Ahead of Mitchell's departure, State Department spokesman Robert Wood did not rule out his also travelling to the Gaza Strip, where Islamist Hamas fighters and Israel fought a war that killed at least 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.
After meeting Mubarak, Mitchell will travel on Wednesday to Israel and the West Bank until Friday for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, a State Department official said, requesting anonymity.
On Saturday, he was to visit Amman before going to Riyadh on Sunday, the official added. Mitchell is due to stop in Paris on Monday and London on Tuesday before returning to Washington, with a possible stopover in Turkey.
The 75-year-old Mitchell said he did not "underestimate the difficulty" of his assignment when he was named special Middle East envoy last week by Obama and Clinton.
Mitchell, a Maronite Catholic whose mother was Lebanese, managed to bring together the leaders of Northern Ireland's religious communities with a mixture of compromise and talks to sign the historic Good Friday agreement in 1998.
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