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Friday, 25 January, 2002, 18:49 GMT
US reconsiders ties with Arafat
Weapons from the seized cargo ship
The Palestinian Authority denies any link with the cargo
US President George W Bush has met foreign policy advisers to consider imposing punitive actions against the Palestinian Authority that could include severing ties with its leader Yasser Arafat.

The meeting comes a few days after President Bush sent key Arab allies a letter containing evidence which the US says proves the PA tried to smuggle 50 tonnes of weapons from Iran to the Gaza Strip earlier this month.

That is not part of fighting terror, that's enhancing terror. And obviously we're very disappointed in Yasser Arafat

US President Bush
Correspondents say options under consideration in Washington include naming two groups linked to Mr Arafat - his mainstream Fatah movement and the armed Tanzim group connected to it - as terrorist organisations.

Secretary of State Colin Powell is thought to favour a softer approach, demanding from Mr Arafat a guarantee of tough action against terrorism while the US offers a resumption of its peacemaking efforts.

The opposing camp is believed to be led by Vice-President Dick Cheney and Pentagon officials who want to sever ties.

US President George W Bush
Bush will receive Ariel Sharon next month
Later on a trip to Maine, President Bush said he was "very disappointed" in Yasser Arafat.

"Ordering up weapons that were intercepted on a boat headed for that part of the world is not part of fighting terror, that's enhancing terror," Mr Bush said.

Mr Arafat, meanwhile, accused Israel of rejecting any peaceful resolution to the conflict and using its influence to sway international opinion against the Palestinians.

"We are the only people under occupation all over the world. Can this be accepted internationally?" he said in an interview with Greek TV.

Arms ship dispute

Israeli commandos raided an Iraqi-owned freighter on 3 January and found an arsenal of weapons including mortars, anti-tank missiles and explosives, which Israel says was going to be used in attacks against Israeli civilians.

Palestinian children with Israeli armoured vehicles in the background
The US says it supports Israel's siege of Ramallah
Most of the evidence implicating the Palestinian Authority - in letters sent by Mr Bush to Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan - was gathered by US intelligence, diplomats said.

It is still unclear whether the evidence implicates the Palestinian leader directly.

Analysts say 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.

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 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.

The BBC's Jeremy Cooke
"The Palestinian leader is in big trouble"
Robert Malley, International Crisis Group
"Putting more pressure on Arafat is not going to save Israeli lives"
The Ha'aretz newspaper's Danny Ben Simon
"Most Israelis do not know where we are heading"
See also:

08 May 01 | Middle East
Arms haul sparks new fears
10 Jan 02 | Middle East
US ups pressure over arms ship
05 Jan 02 | Middle East
Arms row mars peace mission
25 Jan 02 | Middle East
Yasser Arafat's dilemma
25 Jan 02 | Middle East
Suicide bomber strikes Tel Aviv
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