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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 December, 2003, 04:20 GMT
Egypt minister attacked at mosque
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher
Maher complained of breathing problems
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher has been treated in hospital after being attacked at a Jerusalem mosque.

Mr Maher became unwell after being bombarded by angry Muslims as he came to pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque.

Bodyguards whisked the minister out of the compound to an Israeli hospital, before he flew back to Cairo.

Israeli police said they arrested five Palestinians, reportedly from a fringe militant group called the Liberation Party, in connection with the assault.

Mr Maher was in Israel for talks with Israeli leaders about resuming peace talks with the Palestinians, his first visit to the country for two years.

The minister visited the mosque following a series of meetings with senior Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

Correspondents say his assailants are likely to have been angered by the talks between the minister of an Arab Muslim nation and Israel, which they regard as an illegitimate state on Arab land.

Palestinians apparently tried to pelt Mr Maher with shoes both inside and outside the mosque.

Looking ashen-faced and panic-stricken, Mr Maher was hurried away by his bodyguards and Israeli police.

He complained of being short of breath and was taken to hospital for treatment.

'Foolish behaviour'

Mr Sharon called the Jerusalem hospital after the attack.

"I understand you will stay with us a while," he joked with the shaken Egyptian minister.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher

After being given an electrocardiogram, Mr Maher left the hospital in a motorcade for the airport and returned to Cairo.

Arriving back in Egypt, the minister told reporters the assault "will have no impact" on Egypt's role as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.

He described the attack as "just a piece of foolish behaviour".

But the BBC's Jill McGivering, in Jerusalem, says the incident is likely to prove embarrassing for the Israeli and Palestinian authorities, as well as Egypt.

Our correspondent says Israeli officials saw the visit as an important step towards improving relations between the two countries after a three year period of diplomatic strain.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he "deeply regrets" the attack.

Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority "firmly condemned" the attack, Palestinian Negotiations Minister Saeb Erekat told French news agency AFP, while Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei said he was "shocked and furious".

The BBC's James Reynolds
"Ahmed Maher thought he could come here as a neutral mediator"

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