Four killed in Mideast violence as Israel maintains noose around Arafat
NABLUS, West Bank, Oct 1 (AFP) - After three Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed in renewed violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Israeli army maintained a low-key presence around Yasser Arafat's office Tuesday, keeping the Palestinian leader in close check.
The deaths came as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was in Moscow with hopes of rekindling his political momentum before returning to Israel to face the fallout from his humiliating Ramallah siege fiasco and Labour party threats to withdraw from his coalition government.
On Monday, the Israeli army cracked down on Palestinians in the West Bank city of Nablus defying the daily curfew, sparking fierce clashes which left two Palestinian children and an Israeli soldier dead. Ten Palestinians were also injured.
The army continued its sweep for wanted militants in the West Bank all night, arresting more than 50 people, Palestinian security officials said.
Meanwhile in Gaza City, a Palestinian man working as a night watchman on a farm was hit by Israeli bullets as two tanks backed by a helicopter and a bulldozer rolled into the eastern Al-Shujayiah district, Palestinian medics said.
The deaths brought to 2,543 the number of people killed since the intifada erupted two years ago, including 1,877 Palestinians and 615 Israelis, the difference being made up of foreigners.
The situation remained volatile in Ramallah as Israeli guns were again pointed at Arafat's office, two days after the army ended a 10-day siege on the veteran leader's compound.
Speaking from inside the crumbling building which was besieged for 10 days, Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP Israeli troops occupied two Palestinian houses in front of the Muqataa compound and were pointing their guns out of the windows towards Arafat's offices.
On the streets, only a few army jeeps were visible in the vicinity of the wrecked headquarters.
Israel was struggling to save face two days after US pressure forced the army to pull out from the battered compound, letting the 73-year-old Arafat emerge triumphant from yet another siege.
Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer admitted Tuesday that the tanks had only withdrawn to please the United States and remove an obstacle in Washington's preparations for a war against Iraq.
"We left the Muqataa because the United States, our most important ally thought our continued presence (there) was becoming the main obstacle to its goal (of disarming Iraq) which is also in our interest," he told public radio.
The Israeli press described the siege and its abrupt end as a farce, as Israel took its usual hard line and then buckled without achieving its stated goals, which some commentators saw as a dangerous sign of weakness in the hostile region.
From Moscow, where Sharon has been on an official visit since Sunday, the right-wing Israeli leader telephoned Ben Eliezer to express his "anger" that some of the wanted Palestinians who had been trapped inside Arafat's compound had managed to escape, the Israeli daily Maariv said.
The Maariv daily also reported Tuesday that Sharon was holding "secret talks" with unnamed Palestinian officials through his former Mossad intelligence chief Ephraim Halevy, who now heads the National Security Council.
During talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sharon defended the Ramallah siege and insisted Israel should "continue the isolation of Arafat."
On returning from Moscow Tuesday, the premier is expected to face with recriminations from hardliners in his government over the abrupt end of the Arafat siege.
He was facing further complications after two major challengers to Ben Eliezer for the Labour party leadership called for a withdrawal from the national unity government.
"It is possible and right to fight terror but we have to get out of the government to save this country, to save the party," said Amram Mitzna during a tense day-long congress.
Haim Ramon, for his part, argued Labour no longer had any influence in Sharon's government and had lost the respect of the electorate.
Arafat was also facing domestic pressure as he was once again confronted with the need for reforms in long talks with various leadership groups. He had a meeting slated for later Tuesday with his own Fatah group, which forced his cabinet to resign on September 11 one week before the Israeli siege.
One of those ex-ministers, Nabil Shaath, said Arafat had asked the Fatah-dominated parliament for another two-week extension to name a new cabinet, as the previous deadline for a reshuffle expired when he was under siege.
Copyright (c) 2002 Agence France-Presse
Received by NewsEdge Insight: 10/01/2002 14:24:41
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