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Powell Meets With West Bank Relief Workers - 2002-04-13

Secretary of State Colin Powell, continuing his Middle East mission Saturday, met relief workers to discuss humanitarian conditions in Jenin and other Palestinian towns in the West Bank held by Israeli forces. Mr. Powell is still considering whether to meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Mr. Powell met here with officials of the Red Cross and other international relief agencies on conditions in the West Bank towns, including Jenin, where Palestinian casualties are said to number in the hundreds, after heavy fighting between Israeli troops and armed militants.

In a written statement, the secretary said the United States is deeply concerned about what he termed the "serious humanitarian situation" of the Palestinian people, in particular those in Jenin.

He said Israeli forces must exercise "utmost restraint and discipline," and called on Israel to allow unimpeded access by relief agencies to Jenin and other towns, in order to permit, among other things, the evacuation of the dead and wounded.

The focus of the fighting in Jenin was the sprawling Palestinian refugee camp there, where house-to-house combat followed a bomb attack that killed 13 Israeli soldiers.

Meeting reporters after the session with Mr. Powell, officials of the International Red Cross and of UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, said the Israeli military continues to bar relief workers and supplies from the camp, even though most fighting ended several days ago.

The West Bank field director of UNRWA, Richard Cook, said conditions for those left in the camp are severe.

"We have appealed to the Israeli defense forces to allow us into the camp to evacuate the wounded, to evacuate the dead bodies. I described to the Secretary of State the conditions that I believe are now prevailing in the camp," he explained. "The camp has been without water, without electricity for several days. We do know there are dead bodies. We just don't know how many. There are injured people. There has been destruction of property. There has been a heavy attack on the camp, and the conditions in the camp now must be appalling."

Red Cross officials said they appealed to Mr. Powell to take up with Israel what they say has been interference, and even attacks, by Israeli troops on Palestinian Red Crescent ambulances trying to evacuate combat casualties and other wounded in the besieged towns.

Israel has complained that some Palestinian ambulances have been found carrying weapons and explosives, and a Red Cross official said here there may have been one or two instances of such activity.

But he said such cases, which he described as possibly grave mistakes, do not justify retaliation against an entire humanitarian service.

Mr. Powell said in his written statement the United States will contribute an additional $30 million to UNRWA emergency programs, and will provide $62 million in accelerated U.S. aid to help in Palestinian infrastructure repairs.

A Lutheran bishop, who was among a delegation of Christian leaders who met with the secretary, said Mr. Powell told them he intends to meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, after putting off a meeting that had been planned for Saturday morning in the absence of an Arafat statement condemning Friday's suicide bombing in Jerusalem.

Mr. Powell, however, told reporters he was still examining the question of an Arafat meeting, and would make a decision later in