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Friday, 5 April, 2002, 19:20 GMT 20:20 UK
US envoy breaks Arafat isolation
A Palestinian Reuters TV cameraman runs as Israeli troops throw stun grenades at journalists in front on Yasser Arafat's HQ
Israeli forces disperse journalists with stun grenades
A US envoy has met besieged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at his battered West Bank headquarters as Israel steps up its military offensive.

Anthony Zinni met Mr Arafat for 90 minutes in Ramallah in an effort to establish conditions for a ceasefire based on US peace proposals.

Enlarge image Click here for map of Israeli operation
He was the first foreign diplomat allowed to visit Mr Arafat since Israeli tanks smashed into the Palestinian leader's compound a week ago.

At least 15 Palestinians were killed during intense fighting in the north of the West Bank on Friday, including nine in Nablus.

Israel Radio said six Palestinian militants were killed by missiles fired from Israeli helicopters on the village of Tubas, near Jenin.

Militant leaders targeted

Reports say that one of those killed was Qais Idwan, a senior member of Hamas who Israel believes masterminded the suicide bombing in Netanya on 27 March that killed 26 people.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell
Colin Powell will spearhead a new peace initiative

Also in Tubas, a 14-year-old Palestinian girl was reported killed when Israeli tanks entered the village.

A spokesman for the militant al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade said its leader, Nasser Awais, was killed in Nablus when explosives strapped to his body went off prematurely.

Israeli troops still control nearly all of the West Bank and have declared the occupied towns to be closed military zones out of bounds to journalists.

Palestinians say ambulances were unable to reach the dead and wounded in Nablus, where gunmen inside the ancient casbah were trying to fight off Israeli soldiers.

In another development, Israeli forces searched the home of Palestinian information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo near Ramallah on Friday.

First reports said he had been detained but he later denied this, telling the French news agency AFP: "I am not under arrest."

Bethlehem siege

In Bethlehem, a tense stand-off continues for a fourth day at the Church of the Nativity - revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus - where Israeli troops are besieging Palestinian gunmen sheltering among civilians.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon said military operations would continue

The Palestinian leadership has welcomed Thursday's declaration by President George W Bush, which called for an end to violence and for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank towns it has reoccupied.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said his army's continuing occupation of six Palestinian towns was justified because "negotiating before terror is subdued will only lead to its continuation".

The BBC's Caroline Hawley in Jerusalem says Israeli forces are taking advantage of the time left before US Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives in the region next week.

US peace drive

Mr Powell is reported to have spoken to Mr Arafat by phone on Friday, but no details were released.

In order to reach the political process with the Palestinians that Israel eminently desires, Palestinian terror and its organisers must be defeated first

Israel Government statement
The senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, was not allowed to attend Mr Arafat's meeting with Mr Zinni.

But he said Mr Arafat confirmed the Palestinians' support for the US peace proposals and commitment to re-engage in negotiations.

Israel is still preventing Mr Arafat from meeting other senior Palestinian leaders, Mr Erekat said.

Journalists were barred from covering the Ramallah meeting. Israeli soldiers fired tear gas and stun grenades at a group of 30 reporters who approached Mr Arafat's compound.

Pressure on Israel

Israel says it is now holding 900 Palestinian prisoners.

Its most recent campaign began on 29 March in response to a series of deadly suicide bombings.

But pressure is building to end the operation - with the UN Security Council unanimously passing a resolution calling on Israel to pull back "without delay".

It is the third time in a month the US has supported resolutions regarding Israel, having blocked them for more than a year.

Mr Bush's declaration on Thursday called on Israel to halt settlement activity, to pull out of the Palestinian territories defined in UN resolutions, and to "spare innocent Palestinians daily humiliation at checkpoints".

But there was also harsh criticism of Mr Arafat - whom Mr Bush described in terms of having "betrayed the hopes of his people" through his "failure" in the peace process.

The BBC's Barbara Plett
"The morgues are full"
Hamas leader in Gaza Dr. Mahmud El Zahar
"We are ready to make a ceasefire"
Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner
"Arafat has not yet agreed to a real ceasefire"
The BBC's Orla Guerin
"No-one can be sure of the death toll"
See also:

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05 Apr 02 | Middle East
Israel deepens West Bank presence
04 Apr 02 | Middle East
Bush intervenes in Mid-East crisis
05 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Blair heads for Bush talks
04 Apr 02 | Middle East
Extracts from Bush's speech
05 Apr 02 | Middle East
Nobel's regrets on Peres award
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