Mideast leaders trade accusations as gunman killed

 

Israeli Prime Minister Mr Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mr Yasser Arafat accused each other of stoking the Middle East conflict, as scattered violence today left one Palestinian gunman dead and three Israelis wounded.

Despite recent contacts between the two sides and talk of a possible Israeli troop pullback, the daily violence persists and both leaders continue to trade recriminations.

Mr Sharon again said he did not believe Mr Arafat's government would take action to prevent Palestinian attacks against Israel. "Arafat is the head of terrorism and no one is counting on him," Mr Sharon told a Cabinet meeting, according to Cabinet Secretary Mr Gideon Saar.

In recent Israeli-Palestinian talks, the focus has been on Israeli troops pulling out of Palestinian areas in the Gaza Strip, and the Palestinian security forces moving in to take control.

If calm prevails, Israel would look at pulling back in parts of the West Bank, where troops are in most Palestinian cities and towns.

However, the talks have stalled. On another front, a Palestinian delegation was in Washington this past week for discussions with senior officials in the US administration on stabilising the region and reforming the Palestinian security forces. Mr Sharon called the Palestinian proposals for an Israeli pullback "a trick designed to coincide with the talks between Palestinian officials and US leaders."

Mr Arafat said he was encouraged by the Washington discussions, which included the highest-level meetings between US and Palestinian officials in recent months.

"There were very positive talks and today they will return and give a full explanation," Mr Arafat said of the Palestinian team.

But Mr Arafat also said that he did not think Sharon's government was serious about peace negotiations.

"This government is looking only for more escalation for its military plans, they are not looking to achieve peace," Mr Arafat said at his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The Palestinian Authority's interior minister, Mr Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, met CIA director Mr George Tenet outside Washington yesterday and said he was revamping what remains of a Palestinian security force devastated by the Israelis, and firing officers he found to be incompetent.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli troops tracked down and shot dead a Palestinian militant after he opened fire on Israelis working on a fence at a Jewish settlement of Dugit in the northern Gaza Strip, wounding one of them, the army said.

The Palestinian gunman hit the Israeli worker with at least five bullets in his arms and legs, according to the Barzilai Hospital in the Israeli city of Ashkelon.

Israeli troops pursued the fleeing gunman to a house in the nearby Palestinian area of Beit Lahiya, the army added. The Palestinian was killed in a gun battle, and troops then blew up the house, the army said.

The militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack and identified the gunman as Basil Naji (22).

In the northern West Bank town of Jenin, two Israeli soldiers were wounded by Palestinian gunfire, the army said.

Late yesterday, a Palestinian gunman cut through a wire fence and shot dead an Israeli woman and wounded her husband before the attacker was shot dead by Israeli soldiers, the army said.

AP