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Friday, 25 January, 2002, 15:11 GMT
US 'proves' Palestinian arms link
Weapons from the seized cargo ship
The Palestinian Authority denies any link with the cargo
US President George Bush has provided some of his Arab allies with evidence he says proves the Palestinian Authority's involvement in trying to smuggle 50 tonnes of weapons to the Gaza Strip.

He sent the information in letters to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.


[President Bush] understands the reason that Israel has taken the action that it takes

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer
When the freighter was raided by Israeli commandoes on 3 January, they found an arsenal of weapons including mortars, anti-tank missiles and explosives, which Israel says were going to be used in attacks against Israeli civilians.

It says they had been ordered by the Palestinian Authority from Iran, an accusation Mr Arafat has strenuously denied.

Ariel Sharon with weapons seized on board the ship
Mr Sharon has directly blamed Yasser Arafat
It is still unclear whether the evidence implicates the Palestinian leader directly.

However, the US has also implicitly backed Israel's siege of Ramallah in the West Bank which has kept Mr Arafat under office arrest for nearly two months and which was tightened following the discovery of the arms.

"The president understands the reason that Israel has taken the action that it takes, and it is up to Chairman Arafat to demonstrate the leadership to combat terrorism," spokesman Ari Fleischer said.


Fifty tonnes of weapons is a miniscule amount of what the Israelis have been targetting against our people every day

PA minister Nabil Shaath
The BBC's Middle East analyst Roger Hardy says the US administration is taking an increasingly tough line towards Mr Arafat - with some senior figures, including apparently Vice-President Dick Cheney, favouring cutting ties completely with the PA leader.

The hardening of Washington's position is good news for the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who is due to visit the US capital on 7 February.

Seeking explanation

The Palestinian Authority, under US pressure, has detained several suspects connected with the arms shipment, which Palestinian officials have portrayed as an illegal smuggling operation.

Palestinian children with Israeli armoured vehicles in the background
The US "understands" Israel's siege of Ramallah
The US State Department has publicly demanded an explanation from Mr Arafat, which it says it has not yet received.

Palestinian International Co-operation Minister Nabil Shaath told the BBC that the PA had no knowledge about the contents of Mr Bush's letter, but described the US position as "exaggerated and hypocritical".

"It is looking with a blind eye on what the Israelis are doing... Fifty tonnes of weapons is a miniscule amount [compared with] what the Israelis have been targetting against our people every day," Mr Shaath said.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Nick Bryant
"It's still unclear whether the evidence implicates the Palestinian leader directly"
See also:

10 Jan 02 | Middle East
US ups pressure over arms ship
05 Jan 02 | Middle East
Arms row mars peace mission
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