, SHARM EL-SHEIKH, June 7 – US Vice President Joe Biden meets on Monday Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak amid mounting regional tension over a deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid convoy.
Biden arrived Sunday at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, accompanied by senior White House staff and National Security officials, before he heads to Kenya and South Africa.
The visit comes after a raid by US ally Israel on a ship carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza last week which killed nine people and threatens to stall US-brokered proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Turkish-owned boat was part of a six-ship flotilla trying to bust a four-year blockade imposed by Israel on the impoverished and overcrowded Gaza Strip. Another aid boat, the Irish-owned Rachel Corrie, was intercepted on Saturday.
On Sunday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said Israel should be "ashamed of itself" for the deadly raid, but insisted proximity talks were not affected.
He said indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians were "ongoing" and warned that suspending them would hamper Palestinian hopes for the creation of a state.
"If anyone speaks of ending these contacts, he is preventing the Palestinians from achieving their aspirations through political action," Abul Gheit said.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas headed to Turkey on Sunday on his way to Washington for talks with US President Barak Obama on the indirect peace negotiations with Israel — talks which Abbas says are already running into trouble.
"We are going through difficult talks with the Israelis. There are lots of obstacles," he told a group of young Palestinians on Friday.
Despite a wave of global outrage over the Israeli commando assault, the White House has refused to explicitly single out Israel for blame.
Biden said on Wednesday that Israel has the right to protect its security by boarding ships heading for Gaza, but added that the United States would continue to press Israel to improve living conditions for Palestinians.
"I think Israel has an absolute right to deal with its security interest," Biden said in an interview with the "Charlie Rose" show broadcast by PBS television.
"The one thing we have to do is not forget the plight of these Palestinians there… they\’re in bad shape."
On Tuesday, in the wake of the Israeli assault, Mubarak ordered the opening of the Rafah border crossing — the only gateway to Gaza that bypasses Israel — indefinitely.
The impoverished Gaza Strip has been under a crippling blockade since the Islamist Hamas movement, which won legislative elections in 2006, routed forces loyal to Abbas\’s Fatah from the enclave.
Egypt had for its part tightened the blockade by building an underground barrier to block smuggling tunnels linking Gaza and Egypt, on which Palestinians rely for many basic goods, but which are also used by Hamas to bring in weapons.
Mubarak\’s surprise move to open the border has allowed some additional aid into Gaza, but only a restricted category of Palestinians such as those seeking treatment or study abroad are permitted to cross.
Egypt, once a key broker between Israel and the Palestinians, has seen its role as chief mediator decrease but it remains a vital ally to the United States in the region, concentrating in recent months on inter-Palestinian negotiations.
Biden was scheduled to visit Egypt in March, but the trip was cancelled after Mubarak was hospitalized.
His visit to Egypt comes as part of an African tour which takes him to Kenya and South Africa where he will represent the United States at the World Cup opening ceremony.