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Friday, 7 December, 2001, 22:29 GMT
Turkish PM says Sharon targets Arafat
Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit with Secretary of US State Colin Powell
The US campaign has given Turkey new international importance
Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit has said the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, told him Israel wanted to be "rid of" the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat.

Mr Ecevit told a news conference in Ankara on Friday, "During my telephone conversation the other day with Prime Minister Sharon, it became very clear that Israel was inclined towards war."

Yasser Arafat
Mr Arafat is under pressure from all sides
"In fact, Mr Sharon openly expressed their desire to be rid of Mr Arafat," he added.

Mr Ecevit's remarks brought a quick denial from Mr Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin.

Mr Ecevit also said Mr Arafat, who he described as "an irreplaceable leader," was under threat from Palestinian extremists.

"If one way or the other the Arafat factor were to be removed, I fear the problem would be further exacerbated."

'Playing with fire'

Mr Ecevit's statement provoked a swift reaction from the Palestinians.

"The Israeli government is playing with fire," Nabil Abu Rudeina, one of Mr Arafat's senior political advisers, told the AFP news agency.

"Ecevit revealed a very dangerous and premeditated Israeli plot," Mr Rudeina said.

"We strongly warn against any attempt to pursue these Israeli plots, which will only lead to more violence and tension as well as lack of stability."

Hangar with destroyed  Palestinian helicopters
Israel has destroyed Mr Arafat's helicopters
Meanwhile, Raanan Gissin, the Israeli Prime Minister's spokesman, has denied any claim that Ariel Sharon wants to bring down Yasser Arafat.

The BBC correspondent in Jerusalem, James Reynolds, says sources report that Mr Sharon has assured President George W Bush that he will not order the assassination of the Palestinian leader.

The Turkish Prime Minister's remarks come only days after he accused Mr Sharon of using what he described as excessive and unjustified force against the Palestinians.

Turkey has traditionally had close political and military links with Israel, but is also close to the Arab countries.

It has denied that it could be a mediator in any talks between Israel and the Palestinians, simply saying it could act as a "facilitator" in the peace process.

See also:

06 Dec 01 | Middle East
US steps up pressure on Arafat
06 Dec 01 | Middle East
Q&A: Moving against Arafat?
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