Powell says it is important that he meets Arafat during trip to region

 

MIDDLE EAST: The US Secretary of State, Mr Colin Powell, has said on the eve of a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories that it is "important" for him to meet Palestinian leader Mr Yasser Arafat.

"He is the leader of the Palestinian people. I hope there will be no difficulty arranging a meeting with Chairman Arafat," he said. "If we are going to move forward this meeting is important."

The Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Ariel Sharon, has said he believed a meeting between Mr Powell and Mr Arafat, who has been under siege in his West Bank headquarters, would be "a mistake".

In a strong statement of support for Mr Powell's Middle East peace mission, the US, the EU, the UN and Russia united in a call to both sides "to immediately halt this senseless confrontation".

The statement, issued following a meeting in Madrid between Mr Powell; the Secretary General of the UN, Mr Kofi Annan; the Spanish Foreign Minister, Mr Josep Pique, representing the EU; and the Russian Foreign Minister, Mr Igor Ivanov, insists there is "no military solution to the conflict".

It also calls for quicker political dialogue towards a permanent settlement to the conflict.

The detailed declaration, placing clear demands on both sides, reflects a unambiguous coming together by all four and should strengthen the hand of Mr Powell during his tour of the region.

The message is simple: there is no other game in town.

"We affirm that there must be immediate, parallel and accelerated movement towards near-term and tangible political progress, and that there must be a defined series of steps leading to permanent peace - involving recognition, normalisation and security between the sides, an end to Israeli occupation, and an end to the conflict," the statement says.

"This will allow Israel to enjoy enduring peace and security and the Palestinian people to realize their hopes and aspirations in security and dignity."

The statement calls for an immediate ceasefire and Israel's immediate withdrawal from Palestinian-held cities on the West Bank, including Ramallah, where Mr Arafat is under confinement.

Mr Arafat, whose legitimacy as the Palestinian leader is recognised, is asked to use his authority "to persuade the Palestinian people that any and all terrorist attacks against Israelis should end immediately".

The four insist that a peace deal will involve the full implementation of the Tenet and Mitchell peace plans, "including an end to all settlement activity", a demand which will cause particular grief to the Israeli coalition government.

Reflecting unease at the danger of the opening of a second front, the declaration expresses concerns about recent attacks from Lebanon across the UN-determined Blue Line and calls on all parties to desist.

Mr Annan, appearing at a news conference after the meeting, said Syrian and Lebanese leaders had assured him they would try to curb guerrilla attacks on Israel from Lebanon. "They will do everything they can," he said.

On Monday, the US Vice-President, Mr Dick Cheney, spoke to President Bashar Assad of Syria to express US worries.

Mr Powell reiterated his position that a political solution must be pressed hand-in-hand with efforts for a ceasefire.

"Violence of whatever form ... at this point is counterproductive. It is totally destabilising the region."

He said suggestions of trade sanctions against Israel, being discussed in Europe, did not arise at the meeting.

Mr Powell later met King Juan Carlos and then had dinner with Mr Ivanov. He flies to Jordan for discussions with the Jordanian king today and then on to Israel later in the day.