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Sunday, 28 April, 2002, 21:42 GMT 22:42 UK
End in sight for Arafat siege
Ramallah siege
Arafat would be allowed to move freely in the territories
The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has accepted an American plan that would lead to the lifting of the Israeli siege on his compound.

The decision was announced by one of Mr Arafat's senior advisors, Nabil Abu Rudeina, hours after the Israeli cabinet agreed to the plan put forward by US President George W Bush.

The president agreed to the American and British offer and this offer should be implemented immediately in the next 24 hours

Palestinian official Nabil Abu Rudeina
It calls for Israeli forces to leave Mr Arafat's compound and let him travel anywhere once six Palestinian men wanted by Israel are moved to a Palestinian prison where they will be held by US and British guards.

After the plan was announced, White House officials said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would visit the US in early May for talks with President Bush.

The visit is expected to take place within the next 10 days.

Four of the six Palestinian detainees were convicted of the killing of Israeli cabinet minister, Rehavam Zeevi, at a makeshift trial at Mr Arafat's compound on Thursday and sentenced to long jail terms.

American and British security officers are due to arrive in the Palestinian territories on Monday to assess the technical details.

Israeli tanks encircled Mr Arafat's compound on 29 March as part of a West Bank offensive launched after Palestinian suicide attacks killed scores of Israelis.

Bethlehem talks

The Archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Middle East has told the BBC that significant progress was made on Sunday evening in the talks aimed at ending the stand-off at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
There were hopeful signs in Bethlehem on Sunday
Some 200 Palestinian gunmen are holed up in the church, including 30 militants wanted by Israel.

Canon Andrew White, who has been closely involved in the process, said that fresh impetus had been given to the talks in Bethlehem with news of the deal to end the siege of Mr Arafat's compound.

He said agreement was expected soon on plans for several dozen Palestinian civilians to be allowed to leave the Church and in return the Israelis had promised to allow food to be delivered to those remaining inside.

The Islamic militant group Hezbollah has offered to exchange captured Israeli soldiers to secure the release of the Palestinians.

Hezbollah also said it wanted released the four in Palestinian custody in Ramallah in connection with the killing of Mr Zeevi.

Jenin inquiry

The UN Security Council has begun discussions on Israel's refusal to allow a fact-finding mission to Jenin to go ahead.

Palestinian children play in the rubble in Jenin
The UN team was to investigate events at the Jenin refugee camp
Earlier on Sunday, the Israeli cabinet told the United Nations not to send a team to investigate what happened during an Israeli military assault on the Palestinian refugee camp in the town earlier this month.

Israeli spokesman Reuven Rivlin accused the UN of retreating on agreements, and suggested its inquiry would be biased against Israel.

The Palestinians say a massacre of hundreds of people resulted from the Israeli incursion into Jenin, while Israel acknowledges only dozens of casualties in what it describes as a legitimate operation to root out militants.

The Israeli Government has already delayed the UN team's arrival twice with objections about its make-up and mandate.

The UN mission, which had been due to come to Israel on Sunday, is waiting in Geneva for permission to depart.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said it would now be pointless to send it.

"Israel cannot accept the demand by the United Nations mission to decide which military people it will question," he said.

The BBC's Jeremy Cooke
"It looks like things may be about to change"
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat
"I hope the Israelis will act in good faith and lift the siege immediately"
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Daniel Shek
"For the moment we're working with the UN to smooth out some differences"
Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan
"I'm dismayed the government has decided to reject the fact-finding commission"
See also:

27 Apr 02 | Middle East
Jenin mission delayed until Sunday
26 Apr 02 | Middle East
Fresh fighting in Bethlehem
25 Apr 02 | Middle East
Zeevi dispute unresolved
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