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Thursday, 10 January, 2002, 20:11 GMT
US ups pressure over arms ship
Weapons from the seized cargo ship
Israel has insisted that Arafat knew of the shipment
US President George Bush has said he is beginning to suspect that a shipload of arms seized by Israel last week was intended to promote terror in the Middle East.


I am - like many - beginning to believe that those weapons were headed to promote terror

George Bush
US President
Mr Bush reserved final judgement about the cargo - which Israel says involved 50 tons of weapons destined for the Palestinian Authority - but he told reporters those responsible "need to be held to account".

His remarks give fresh momentum to Israel's allegations, but he did not directly blame Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has done.

At a separate news briefing, US Secretary of State Colin Powell stressed he had seen no information linking the shipment with Mr Arafat.

"The information we are receiving and developing on our own makes it clear that there are linkages to the Palestinian Authority. I have not seen information that yet links it directly to Chairman Arafat," Mr Powell told reporters.

Ariel Sharon with weapons seized on board the ship
Mr Sharon has directly blamed Yasser Arafat
Palestinian leaders have denied any knowledge of the arms boat, which was seized by Israel in the Red Sea last week, and have dismissed the allegations as Israeli fabrication aimed at stymying efforts to secure peace.

Correspondents say Mr Bush's support will be warmly received by Israel, which had accused the US of deliberately downplaying the incident to discourage Israeli retaliation against the Palestinians.

One Israeli minister said the US was trying to avoid a confrontation with Iran, which Israel has accused of supplying the weapons.

Attention

Mr Bush's announcement came amid fresh tit-for-tat violence in the Middle East which has ended a period of relative calm.

Peace envoy Anthony Zinni
US peace envoy Anthony Zinni is to return to the region
On Thursday, Israeli bulldozers and armoured vehicles demolished houses in the Gaza Strip - leaving hundreds homeless - in retaliation for the deaths of four soldiers.

The BBC's James Reynolds says the Israeli response was nonetheless measured in comparison with their recent standards - a sign that the Government is keen to focus international attention on the ship seizure.

Mr Bush insisted that Mr Arafat must "work hard to get to the peace table".

"Mr Arafat must renounce terror, must reject those who would disrupt the peace process through terror," he said, adding that he still planned to send his envoy, Anthony Zinni, back to the Middle East.

Mr Zinni's trip last week was overshadowed by the seizure of the ship, and fresh Palestinian efforts to crack down on the militants who feature on a list of suspects drawn up by Israel largely went ignored by their neighbours.

Israeli evidence

Mr Bush reportedly came to his decision after briefings by Israeli intelligence.

The US State Department had earlier described as "credible" remarks by the seized ship's captain that he was "under orders" from an official in the Palestinian Authority.

Omar Akawi, who was arrested last Thursday along with 12 crewmen, reportedly said in prison interviews with Israeli and US media that he had been a member of Mr Arafat's Fatah faction since 1976.

Mr Akawi said he picked up the arms off Iran's coast in the Gulf and that he believed Iran and the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah were involved in the shipment, although Iran has denied any connection.

The State Department now says it believes the evidence of a link to Iran and Hezbollah is "compelling".

The Palestinian Authority has launched its own investigation into the affair.

"If anything is revealed - and I personally do not think it will be - we will not hesitate to bring [the culprits] before a trial," Mr Arafat said.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Mike Fox
"Mr Bush said those responsible must be called to account"
See also:

06 Jan 02 | Middle East
US envoy optimistic over Mid-East talks
05 Jan 02 | Middle East
Arms row mars peace mission
30 Dec 01 | Middle East
Israel sees peace hope
15 Dec 01 | Middle East
US blocks Mid-East observers
28 Nov 01 | Middle East
US Mid-East envoy calls for change
29 Nov 01 | key documents
The Mitchell report
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