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US Official Visits Jenin Camp - 2002-04-20

A top U.S. envoy to the Middle East has toured the devastated Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank and called the situation there a "terrible human tragedy." Correspondent Meredith Buel has details from Jerusalem.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, William Burns, watched Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp dig through rain-soaked rubble looking for the bodies of loved ones and personal possessions.

Mr. Burns says, "It is obvious that what happened in the Jenin camp has caused enormous human suffering for thousands of Palestinian civilians."

The U.S. envoy declined to comment on whether he saw evidence of a massacre that Palestinians allege was committed by the Israeli army during fierce fighting earlier this month with Palestinian gunmen.

Israel vehemently denies a massacre took place and says mostly Palestinian militants died during the incursion, in which 23 Israeli soldiers were also killed.

Mr. Burns called on Israel to provide "full and complete access to relief agencies" to bring the refugees supplies and equipment which are "desperately needed."

Israel says it will cooperate with a United Nations fact-finding team that will investigate what happened during the military assault on the camp.

Friday night, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to send a mission to the region headed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Meanwhile, Israel has rejected a Palestinian offer to put on trial in a Palestinian court those who allegedly killed an Israeli cabinet minister.

An aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat says the suspects, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), are in custody at Mr. Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Israel is demanding that the suspects be handed over for trial in the Jewish state.

Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi was assassinated in a Jerusalem hotel by Palestinian gunmen last October.

The PFLP says the attack was in retaliation for the targeted killing of its leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, by the Israeli military.

Israeli troops are confining Mr. Arafat to a few rooms in his West Bank headquarters.

Israeli tanks also continue to surround the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over the site where Christian tradition says Jesus was born.

About 200 Palestinians, many of them armed, are hiding in the church and Israel is demanding they surrender.

The Israeli army launched a massive operation in the West Bank late last month after a series of Palestinian suicide attacks killed dozens of Israelis.