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Security forces loyal to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas uncovered a tunnel used by smugglers near Rafah on Saturday and sealed it yesterday with cement.

The operation was well received by the relevant U.S. agencies, which consider this an expression of the security efforts the Palestinians are making to counter this ongoing problem.

A Western diplomatic source said yesterday that the tunnel was used for smuggling and for crossing into Egypt.

The discovery of the tunnel was the result of a combined operation involving members of the Palestinian Presidential Guard, the National Security organization, and the preventive security apparatus - all associated with the head of Preventive Security, Rashid Abu Shbak.

"Perhaps what we have seen here is the start of cooperation between the different [security] organizations and the beginning of a Palestinian effort to combat the tunnels," the same Western diplomat said.

The demand that Abbas deploy his security forces along the southern border of the Gaza Strip, in an effort to counter the tunnel phenomenon, is part of the so-called benchmarks plan presented to Israel and the PA by the Bush administration.

A discussion of the plan and Israel's response to it is scheduled to take place in the Prime Minister's Bureau this week.

The defense establishment has reservations about the plan's demand that roadblocks be lifted in the West Bank, arguing that this would undermine the efforts to prevent terrorist attacks.

However, a significant portion of American demands for greater freedom of movement for the Palestinians in the West Bank has already appeared in previous documents to which Israel has committed itself - including the November 2005 agreement on crossings.

Meanwhile, a meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas, scheduled to take place last week, was postponed because of the publication of the Winograd committee report. A new date for a meeting has still not been set, sources in the bureau said yesterday.