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Thursday, 14 February, 2002, 09:27 GMT
Arafat takes blame for arms shipment
Mortars seized on board the Karine-A
The Karine-A was carrying 50 tonnes of weapons
The United States says Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has accepted responsibility for an attempt to smuggle arms on board a ship intercepted by Israel last month.

Until now, Mr Arafat had denied any knowledge of the affair, which cast a shadow over US efforts to implement a ceasefire between the two sides.

[Arafat] wrote me a letter three days ago on the Karine-A, accepting responsibility

Colin Powell, US Secretary of State
The United States had demanded an explanation from Mr Arafat, saying it had compelling evidence of Palestinian involvement in the smuggling attempt.

The disclosure coincided with a series of Israeli incursions into the Gaza Strip after militants fired rockets across the border and with calls from Britain for Europe to co-ordinate its diplomatic initiatives with the US.

Mr Arafat's comments came in a letter to US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"He [Arafat] wrote me a letter three days ago on the Karine-A, accepting responsibility - not personal responsibility, but as chairman of the Palestinian Authority," Mr Powell told a Congressional committee.

Action wanted

Mr Powell said the Palestinian leader had also promised not to buy arms in the future.

The State Department said it was satisfied with Mr Arafat's explanation but wanted action to follow his words.

If the international community is divided or allows itself to be divided that will make the path to peace much more difficult

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw

On Thursday, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was expected to call for a "common approach" to the Middle East from Europe and America when he meets his German counterpart Joschka Fisher in Tel Aviv.

His call for co-ordinated action backs the US position and differs from French proposals for immediate elections and the formation of a Palestinian state.

"I know this for certain... if the international community is divided or allows itself to be divided that will make the path to peace much more difficult," he said.

'New dimension to terror'

On Wednesday night, Mr Straw emerged from "frank" talks with Mr Arafat in Ramallah urging the Palestinian leader to take action to stop extremists carrying out terrorist attacks in Israel.

He said suicide bombing in Israel was a "new dimension to the terror" which the people of Israel had to deal with, and that it undermined the possibility of a political peace process.

At a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Spain last weekend, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine pushed for immediate Palestinian elections, followed by the establishment of a Palestinian state.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana also said this week that the two states solution was the only way to bring about lasting peace.

Arms 'from Iran'

The Karine-A was stopped by Israeli commandos 500 kilometres (300 miles) off the Israeli coast on 3 January.

Yasser Arafat
Arafat previously denied any link to the ship

Israel said the ship was carrying 50 tonnes of Iranian-made weapons, including Katyusha rockets, ammunition and explosives.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon described the vessel as a "Ship of Terror" which "would have changed the strategic balance" between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority launched an investigation into the allegations and arrested a number of officials.

The BBC State Department correspondent Jon Leyne says the text of Mr Arafat's letter appears to have been carefully negotiated, leaving open the question of just who was to blame for the shipment.

The dispute led President Bush to seriously consider cutting off ties with the Palestinian leader, which would have been supported by Israel and hardliners within the White House.

Military action

Israel, meanwhile, raided three Palestinian-ruled areas of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday in an operation aimed at preventing any future attempts by Palestinian militants to fire Qassam-2 rockets at Israel.

Five Palestinian policemen died in clashes with troops after Israel forces moved into Beit Lahiya, Beit Hanoun and Deir al-Balah.

They withdrew after arresting several militants.

Israeli army radio said troops killed an armed Palestinian late on Wednesday near the Jewish settlement of Morag in the south of the Gaza Strip.

The BBC's Barbara Plett
"This letter does seem to have gone some way to diffusing the dispute"
Ha'aretz newspaper's David Landau
"The Americans are the best bet for peacemaking"
See also:

13 Feb 02 | Middle East
Analysis: EU split on Mid-East
14 Feb 02 | Middle East
Fresh incursion in Gaza
12 Feb 02 | Middle East
Hamas' potent new threat
10 Jan 02 | Middle East
Weapons ship mystery deepens
10 Jan 02 | Middle East
US ups pressure over arms ship
08 Jan 02 | Middle East
US shift on Israeli arms seizure
08 Jan 02 | Middle East
Arms ship captain acted 'under orders'
05 Jan 02 | Middle East
Arms row mars peace mission
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