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U.S. Congressmen meet with Arafat amid clashes in West Bank, Gaza

Friday, April 18, 2003

By Paisley Dodds, The Associated Press

JERUSALEM -- A U.S. congressional delegation met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the newly appointed Palestinian prime minister yesterday, smoothing the way for a U.S.-backed peace plan that envisions a Palestinian state.

It was the first high-level meeting between U.S. officials and the embattled Arafat since President George W. Bush effectively boycotted him in June, conditioning Palestinian statehood on Arafat's departure.

The talks, however, were not sanctioned by the State Department.

The three congressmen said Arafat assured them he would give designated Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, real power to lead Palestinians -- a key demand for the peace plan to move forward.

"Arafat agreed," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. "He has to give Abu Mazen the freedom and authority to lead the Palestinians."

The talks came as clashes erupted between Israeli troops and Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Soldiers shot and killed a 16-year-old in the West Bank and shot a 17-year-old in the chest in Rafah on the Gaza Strip. Witnesses said the boys were throwing stones at troops.

In 30 months of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians, about 2,269 Palestinians have been killed. On the Israeli side, there have been 758 deaths.

Part of the U.S.-backed "road map" calls for the cessation of violence. It also calls for the eventual withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank and Gaza. Under the plan, a provisional Palestinian state could be formed as soon as this year.

The so-called road map is expected to be unveiled once Abu Mazen confirms his new government, which could occur as early as Sunday.

"Abu Mazen will present his government to the Palestinian Legislative Council by Sunday," Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath said yesterday.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meanwhile, invited Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to England for talks. Sharon's office said it was reviewing the invitation.

Sharon, like Bush, has refused to deal with Arafat. Israeli troops all but confined Arafat to his bombed out office compound a year ago. Sharon has said, however, he is willing to start talks with Abu Mazen once the government is formed.

"There is a road map that has been worked out ... and we should now pursue peace," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., was also part of the U.S. delegation.

Jeffery Feltman, a spokesman for U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, said the State Department "did not think (the delegation's visit) was a good idea. The administration does not believe that Mr. Arafat is an interlocutor for peace," he said.

Senior Israeli officials also disapproved of the meeting. Israel accuses Arafat of sponsoring terrorism and failing to rein in militants.

Palestinians said the visit signaled a thawing in U.S.-Palestinian relations.

"For a long time, the Americans didn't visit Arafat," said Saeb Erekat, Palestinian Cabinet minister. "The visit shows good American support for the road map and a real will to revive the peace process in the region."

Rep. Rahall said Arafat had served as "a symbol of the Palestinian drive for a state and self-determination," but that "sometimes one has to realize that it is time to step aside and give someone else a chance to take the reins."

The three congressmen would meet with Syrian President Basher Assad on Sunday, Rahall said. Senior U.S. officials have accused Syria of providing Iraq with war material and harboring terrorists.

The West Bank and Gaza Strip, meanwhile, remained under a tight closure after Israeli officials received information that Palestinian militants were planning attacks during the Jewish holiday of Passover, which began Wednesday.

Last year, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in a hotel in the Israeli seaside resort of Netanya during a Passover meal, killing 29, the bloodiest single Palestinian attack in the 21/2 year conflict.

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