Arafat's security chief to move on militias


THE MIDDLE EAST: Amid the first faint signs in months of serious Israeli and Palestinian efforts to resume peace negotiations, Mr Yasser Arafat's new Palestinian Authority security chief pledged yesterday to thwart the militant groups engaged in what he called terrorism against Israel.

In an interview with the Associated Press, the new Palestinian Interior Minister, Gen Abdel Razak al-Yehiyeh, who was only sworn in to the cabinet on Thursday, said he intended to "put an end to all the militias" that had been carrying out attacks on Israelis. As a first step, he said he intended to open a dialogue with the leaders of such groups - which include the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as the Al-Aksa Brigades, which are affiliated to Mr Arafat's own Fatah faction of the PLO.

"I will not agree in any way," he said, "to pollute the name of the Palestinian people with terrorism."

Supporting relentless Israeli calls for a serious effort by the Palestinian Authority to prevent suicide bombings and other attacks, President Bush has indicated that the failure to take such action thus far has slowed the process towards the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Both US and Israeli leaders are now indicating, however, that real progress on this issue could produce dramatic acceleration on the diplomatic front.

The moderate Israeli Foreign Minister, Mr Shimon Peres, with the sanction of his harder-line Prime Minister, Mr Ariel Sharon, has reopened behind-the-scenes talks with Palestinian officials on the modalities of a tentatively planned international peace conference later this summer. He has also indicated support for the idea of "provisional" Palestinian statehood - the granting of sovereignty for Mr Arafat over most of the Gaza Strip and a relatively small proportion of the West Bank, as a springboard to a renewed effort to reach a permanent peace deal.

Palestinian officials have indicated cautious support, provided they are given guarantees that a final accord will involve statehood on all, or very nearly all, the territory in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem captured by Israel in the 1967 war.

A Palestinian minister, Mr Nabil Sha'ath, has been in Washington in recent days, explaining a new Palestinian position paper to the US Secretary of State, Mr Colin Powell.

This paper calls for a timetable for the establishment of Palestine and, while urging a solution to the refugee problem, reportedly does not prescribe a "right of return" to Israel for up to four million Palestinians.

All Israeli and Palestinian eyes are now turned to Washington, where Mr Bush is now expected to unveil his Middle East peace blueprint within the week.

Mr Sharon is hoping the US plan will not include a demand for an immediate freeze in building at Jewish settlements.

Israel has acknowledged in recent days that some 60 new "outposts" have been illegally erected by settlers in the West Bank - small clusters of mobile homes on hilltops adjacent to existing settlements.

Meanwhile yesterday, an Israeli shot dead a Palestinian who had stabbed and lightly injured him at a petrol station at Kedumin, a West Bank settlement.