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Last Updated: Monday, 12 February 2007, 15:06 GMT
Israel to delay work at holy site
Building work near Dome of the Rock
Israel denies the excavations threaten the al-Aqsa mosque
Controversial construction work near the holiest site for Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem is to be put off to allow public consultations, officials say.

Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski said the decision was taken so the general public could express any opposition.

However, preparatory excavations are continuing, despite riots by Muslim worshippers last week.

Israeli authorities want to rebuild a collapsed walkway at the site. Muslims say the work endangers its foundations.

The location houses the al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam, and is revered by Jews as the site of their Biblical temples.

Mr Lupolianski said late on Sunday that the building work on a new walkway to replace a damaged bridge will now be subjected to a full planning review.

The project could be delayed by months or result in its outright cancellation.

The decision would not affect work currently under way, officials said, in which archaeologists are carrying out an exploratory dig to ensure no important remains are damaged when the walkway is built.

SACRED TO MUSLIMS: Site of Prophet Muhammad's first prayers and ascent into Heaven, home to al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock
SACRED TO JEWS: Site of first and second Temples and the rock on which Abraham offered his son as a sacrifice. Western Wall is the holiest site in Judaism

The excavations have angered Muslims across the world. The Arab League called it a "criminal attack" and has asked the UN to intervene.

"Only an announcement from the Israeli government ordering a halt to all work once and for all, and authorising the Waqf [Islamic endowment authorities] to embark on the necessary repair work will satisfy us," said the Mufti of Jerusalem Sheikh Mohammed.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has refused to call off the renovations, despite the recent clashes and opposition within his governing coalition.

Addressing a weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, he said the work was essential to repair a dangerous structure and would not affect the mosque compound in any way.

Flashpoint for violence

Small clashes have persisted on Monday, with several stone-throwing incidents reported in Jerusalem's Arab neighbourhoods.

The delay was criticised by hard-line Israeli politicians, who said it amounted to a surrender to Arab pressure.

More than 2,000 Israeli police have been deployed to bolster security at the compound after two days of violent clashes in which dozens were wounded in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Access to the site has been denied to Muslim men under the age of 45 and Palestinians from the West Bank.

Israeli authorities say the work is needed after a centuries-old walkway partially collapsed in 2004.

The compound, in the Old City in East Jerusalem - an area captured by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war - has regularly been a flashpoint for violence.

In 1996, Israel's opening of an exit to a tunnel near the site triggered riots in which 80 people died in clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli troops.

And in 2000, the Palestinian uprising began at the mosque following a controversial tour of the site by Israel's then opposition leader, Ariel Sharon.


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