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Palestinian PM Calls for Protection of Arafat - 2004-04-24

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia has called on the international community to protect Yasser Arafat after new threats by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon against the Palestinian leader.

In a statement carried Saturday by the Palestinian news agency Wafa, Mr. Qureia asked the United Nations Security Council and the international community to come together to, "stop Ariel Sharon from harming President Arafat."

The statement warned that "any such act of folly can only take the region into the abyss and bring about the definitive collapse of peace efforts."

Mr. Sharon said in an Israeli TV interview Friday night that he is no longer bound by his promise to President Bush not to attack the Palestinian leader.

The comment drew a sharp rebuke from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said President Bush has made it clear that he would oppose any attacks against Mr. Arafat. Mr. Powell said the president firmly believes that he has a commitment from Prime Minister Sharon that no such attempt will be made.

Israeli radio said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice gave a similar message to Mr. Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weisglass.

Mr. Arafat brushed off the threats, telling several thousand supporters who had gathered outside his West Bank headquarters on Saturday that Israel can never get rid of him.

Israel accuses Yasser Arafat of supporting Palestinian militants, who have killed more than 900 Israelis during three and a half years of fighting.

More than 2,000 Palestinians have died as a result of Israeli incursions into Palestinian areas in the same period. Israel has also assassinated dozens of militants, including the leaders of the Islamic group Hamas. Because of U.S. pressure, Israel has refrained from harming Mr. Arafat but has kept him confined to his West Bank headquarters for two years.

In September, Israel's cabinet decided Mr. Arafat should be "removed" but did not specify whether that meant he should be expelled or assassinated. Last month, Israel's army chief, Moshe Yaalon suggested Mr. Arafat could be targeted.