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Tight Security for Arafat-Powell Talks - 2002-04-14

Secretary of State Colin Powell met Palestinian-leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during his quest for a Middle East cease-fire. Mr. Powell goes to Lebanon and Syria Monday for talks on the situation along Israel's northern border.

There was extraordinary security for Mr. Powell's three-hour visit with Mr. Arafat, whose bullet-scarred compound in Ramallah remains largely occupied by Israeli troops.

A senior U.S. official said the secretary pressed Mr. Arafat to rein in Palestinian terror, saying the suicide bombings in Israel are a barrier to moving forward to a truce and peace talks.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters Mr. Arafat would carry through with his stated pledge to curb violence only after Israel ends its more than two-week-old military drive in the West Bank. "We are fully committed to our obligations emanating from understandings and agreements reached, including our security obligations," said Mr. Erekat. "But I am sure the Secretary saw President Arafat's situation. So who is controlling here? And I believe that once the Israelis complete their troop withdrawal, we will as Palestinians carry out our obligations."

The senior American official said Mr. Arafat spoke non-stop for an hour at the start of the Powell meeting about the hardships caused to Palestinians by the Israeli incursions. He said the Palestinian leader demanded an end not only to Israel's siege of his headquarters, but also its encirclement of the Jenin refugee camp and Bethlehem's church of the nativity.

The Powell visit to Ramallah gave American reporters a rare look inside Mr. Arafat's compound. The Palestinian leader, dozens of staff members and security men, and about 30 foreign peace activists have been barricaded there since late last month, just meters from Israeli troops arrayed outside and in adjacent buildings.

Palestinian doctor Zeid Abu Shawish, an official of the Palestinian Authority's health ministry, said he was treating six men wounded in fighting with Israeli troops. He said he is worried about poor sanitary conditions and a lack of water in the sole building of the complex controlled by Arafat supporters.

He said the 72-year-old Palestinian leader is in good physical condition. But "of course the situation, under pressure, it is unusual pressure for an old man like him. But I hope that he will pass this situation."

Mr. Powell later went to Tel Aviv for his second meeting in three days with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. An American spokesman said in the course of a "very good and thorough" talk with the Israeli leader, Mr. Powell pressed for the completion of Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank. The spokesman said he stressed "serious concerns" about the humanitarian situation, especially in Jenin.

Members of Mr. Powell's team are to meet Monday with senior Palestinian officials, while the secretary visits Beirut and Damascus in a trip expected to take less than 12 hours.

The secretary can be expected to ask Lebanese and Syrian officials to clamp down on the activities of Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah rocket attacks into Israel have raised international concern about the eruption of a "second front" in the Middle East conflict.