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Palestinians Assault Egyptian Foreign Minister at Jerusalem Mosque - 2003-12-22

Palestinian Muslims have assaulted visiting Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Mr. Maher, who is reported to have been lightly injured, was taken to an Israeli hospital.

Witnesses say Mr. Maher was jostled and possibly struck several times by angry Palestinians, who attempted to pelt him with shoes, both inside and outside the mosque.

The mob accused the 68-year-old Egyptian foreign minister of being a traitor and a collaborator for holding talks with Israeli leaders. He reportedly complained of being short of breath and at one point cried out that he felt as if he was going to choke.

Israeli police and bodyguards were seen escorting Mr. Maher out of the clutches of a crowd screaming abuse. He was later taken to a hospital, where Israeli doctors reported he was in good condition.

Earlier, Mr. Maher met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and invited him to visit Cairo soon for what would be his first talks with President Hosni Mubabak. Egypt is trying to get the Israeli-Palestinian peace process going after three years of stalemate.

As is their custom, Israeli security officers had escorted Mr. Maher and his delegation to the mosque, but did not enter with him. They went in after the violence started to help him get out.

The Palestinian Authority has condemned the attack, and vowed to find those responsible.

[Israeli police say they arrested at least five Palestinians in connection with the attack. Police officials would only say that the suspects are from East Jerusalem.]

Some Palestinians were angry that Egypt agreed to send Mr. Maher to meet with Israeli officials after Israel said that the meeting could take place only if Mr. Maher agreed not to visit Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who is confined to his ruined compound in Ramallah.

The site where Mr. Maher came under attack is holy to both Muslims and Jews, who call it the Temple Mount. It is one of the most sensitive religious sites in the Middle East, and has often been a flashpoint for violence and clashes. The current Palestinian uprising began there in September 2000, after a visit by Mr. Sharon, who was then in the opposition.