Israel rejects ceasefire offer


ISRAEL: Israeli Foreign Minister Mr Silvan Shalom yesterday rejected a Palestinian offer for a permanent ceasefire, insisting this could not be a substitute for the disarming of militant groups, which he said was a condition for his government agreeing to move to the second phase of the road map peace plan. From Peter Hirschberg in Jerusalem

In Ramallah, meanwhile, a standoff which began on Friday in Palestinian Authority President Mr Yasser Arafat's compound, and which involved 17 militants holed up there, appeared over yesterday.

Mr Arafat's guards and Palestinian police confined the militants to a room in the compound as part of an effort aimed at bringing about Israel's withdrawal from Ramallah, which would lead to the lifting of the siege on the Palestinian leader.

As part of the deal - co-ordinated with Israel and the United States - the militants were to be transferred to the West Bank city of Jericho. But the men, who are on Israel's wanted list, refused to move and threatened to end the temporary ceasefire declared on June 29th by militant groups.

The showdown was defused when the Palestinian Authority agreed the men would not be transferred to Jericho until it had completed negotiations with Israel over their fate and what concessions Israel will make for their transfer out of Ramallah. In exchange, the group has said it will abide by the truce. Mr Arafat has been a virtual prisoner since Israel besieged his compound 18 months ago. The armed men inside the compound took refuge there when Israel invaded the West Bank city, and Mr Arafat fears if he leaves, the Israeli army will arrest them and block him from returning to his HQ.

In their meeting in Jerusalem, Palestinian Foreign Minister Mr Nabil Shaath offered his Israeli counterpart, Mr Shalom, an "absolute and permanent" ceasefire, arguing that the longer the truce lasted the more support would grow for the Palestinian Authority.

But Mr Shalom is said to have demanded "100 per cent" effort from the Palestinians in dismantling armed groups - a condition of the first phase of the road map.

Mr Sha'ath told Mr Shalom he did not have "200 tanks with which to fight Hamas". An Israeli ministerial committee met last night and decided to release 443 palestinian prisoners.

A Palestinian man was shot dead yesterday by Israeli police at a roadblock north of Jerusalem. Police said they opened fire after the driver ignored their calls to stop and hit a patrol car. Meanwhile an Israeli woman and her three children were injured last night when their vehicle was fired on travelling between Jerusalem and Bethelem. The mother was in a serious condition.