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Monday, 29 April, 2002, 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK
UK guards head for Mid-East mission
Ramallah siege
Ramallah has been under siege for more than a month
British security experts will arrive in the Middle East on Monday evening ahead of a mission to help guard Israel's most wanted Palestinians.

Three members of the 10-strong British team will join American guards as part of a deal to free Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from a month-long Israeli siege of his compound in Ramallah.

Under the plan, proposed by US President George W Bush, the six Palestinian men wanted by Israel will be supervised by the international team after being moved from Mr Arafat's compound to a Palestinian prison.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told MPs it would be up to the Palestinian Authority to ensure the wardens safety.

We would not send people into these kind of situations if their own security was to be significantly compromised

Jack Straw
Foreign Secretary

Under the plan, Israeli forces will then pull back from the compound and let Mr Arafat travel anywhere after the wanted men are moved.

The Palestinians will be held in international custody at the prison by the British and US guards, called "supervisory wardens".

The British contingent is made up mostly of retired police officers and soldiers hand picked for the job. Their names have yet to be released.

Only one member of the trio arriving on Monday works for the Foreign Office. The other two are from outside the government.

Seven more team members will arrive later.

Their first task will be to assess the technical details of the scheme.

The six prisoners include four convicted of murdering Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi last October.

'Significant step'

Israel has abandoned attempts to have them handed over and agreed to the unusual plan as the next best option.

The plan, which does not involve British or American troops, has also been approved by Mr Arafat.

Map
The guards are to ensure the prisoners are not simply allowed to go free again in the months to come - something the Palestinian Authority has allowed to happen in the past.

Mr Straw spoke twice on the phone on Sunday to the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to discuss the details.

The foreign secretary told the BBC Radio 4's Today programme the British contingent had handled this kind of situation before.

He said: "We would not send people into these kind of situations if their own security was to be significantly compromised.

Delay

"There's an advance party of three people going out today to check on the facilities and arrangements.

"Obviously the individuals' own protection is a very important part of this."

The Jenin refugee camp
Jenin is causing "serious concern", says Jack Straw
Later, the foreign secretary told MPs there was still much to do to make sure the initiative went ahead.

"This is a significant step forward but on its own it is not enough," said Mr Straw.

Instead, both sides had to stop the violence and start talking to each other.

Mr Straw said there was "serious concern" over the failure of the Israel to let a UN fact-finding team into the Jenin refugee camp.

Peace progress

Palestinians claim the camp was the site of a "massacre" but Mr Straw said Israel had "nothing to fear" if its actions were necessary and proportionate.

He had told his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres, that the fact-finders should be allowed in "without delay".

Conservative shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram welcomed the wardens initiative as a "small but significant step" in renewing dialogue in the region.

But he pressed Mr Straw to confirm the scheme was not the forerunner of any future peace-keeping or nation-building deployment.

Mr Straw said no larger involvement was currently planned.

But "down the track" there could be a role for an international force if more progress was made towards peace, he said.

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