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Monday, 15 April, 2002, 06:47 GMT 07:47 UK
Sharon proposes peace conference
Colin Powell and Ariel Sharon
Mr Powell failed to get a promise of withdrawal
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has suggested the United States lead a regional conference to find peace for the Middle East.

Mr Sharon said US Secretary of State Colin Powell - who is continuing diplomatic efforts in Lebanon and Syria - had supported the idea during their talks on Sunday.
Conference chances
Israel: "I estimate that within a short period of time the conference will indeed convene"
US: "There's still more discussion necessary on both sides"
Palestinians: "I am ready for an immediate conference"

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he would accept the Israeli proposal if it had President George W Bush's backing and Israel pulled out of Palestinian territories.

"Any initiative which would be declared by President Bush I will accept it to achieve peace... I am ready for an immediate conference, but at the same time immediate withdrawal," he told an American broadcaster.

But Mr Sharon has proposed such a conference before, and insisted that Mr Arafat should not attend. Correspondents say there is nothing to indicate he has changed his position.

More discussion

Mr Sharon said the US could host talks between Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and Palestinian representatives as well as any other interested parties.

Yasser Arafat and Colin Powell
Colin Powell will hold more talks with Yasser Arafat on Tuesday

"This idea is acceptable to the United States and I estimate that within a short period of time the conference will indeed convene," said Mr Sharon, who has previously opposed international conferences, fearing Israel would be isolated.

Mr Powell's spokesman Richard Boucher confirmed the idea had been raised.

"But there's still more discussion necessary on both sides to see how we would do it, and where it would be set," he said.

Mr Powell is paying unscheduled visits to Beirut and Damascus to try to remove the ongoing threat of Syrian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas firing rockets at northern Israel across the Lebanese border.

Humanitarian concern

The Israeli proposals come as its military, together with the International Red Cross, prepares to enter the Jenin refugee camp to search for bodies of dead Palestinians.

In his meeting with Mr Sharon, Mr Powell stressed his serious concerns about the humanitarian situation in parts of the West Bank, such as Jenin, that have been occupied by the Israelis since an offensive started on 29 March.

But Mr Sharon did not provide any timetable for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Israel has demanded assurances that suicide bombings will stop before they pull out.

Mr Powell spent about three hours with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Sunday and further talks were announced for Tuesday.

The two met inside Mr Arafat's besieged and bullet-scarred headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah amid tight security, with Israeli troops ringing the compound.

The BBC's Jon Leyne, who is travelling with Mr Powell, says a prolonged process of negotiation has only just started.


  Detailed map of the West Bank operation

Mr Powell appears to be trying a new strategy, our correspondent says, taking negotiations day by day, trying to persuade the Israelis to pull out town by town and hoping the suicide bombers hold off.

The meeting with Mr Arafat, postponed following Friday's suicide bombing in Jerusalem, came after the Palestinian leader bowed to a key American demand and publicly condemned terrorism.

No statement was issued after the talks, but Mr Powell described the meeting as "useful and constructive".

West Bank ruins

Israeli bulldozers had spent the night clearing some of the wreckage from around the Ramallah compound.

But it was still a desolate landscape that greeted Mr Powell as he came to the heart of what amounts to a war zone.

Pools of sewage and abandoned cars riddled with bullet holes littered the streets, while inside the compound was a sordid stench, resulting from 15 days without water or electricity.

Witnesses said Mr Arafat looked drawn as he greeted Mr Powell. The two men were surrounded by Palestinian bodyguards and US security agents carrying sub-machine guns.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Stephen Gibbs
"Anti Israeli protests are daily events in Lebanon"
The BBC's Jeremy Bowen
"Israel has Bethlehem under tight control"
Daniel Shek, spokesperson, Israeli Foreign Ministry
"Everything can be discussed once we have an agreement"
Pastor of Lutheran Church, Bethlehem, Mitrel Raheb
"I don't think this way leads to peace"
See also:

15 Apr 02 | Middle East
Israel set to remove Jenin bodies
13 Apr 02 | Middle East
Palestinian 'shot dead' in Bethlehem
13 Apr 02 | Middle East
Arafat's statement on terrorism
13 Apr 02 | Middle East
Arafat weighs his options
12 Apr 02 | Middle East
Eyewitness: Jerusalem attack
12 Apr 02 | Middle East
Israel stalls over troop withdrawal
12 Apr 02 | Middle East
Israel's history of bomb blasts
14 Apr 02 | Middle East
Palestinians reject Bethlehem deal
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