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Wednesday, 13 February, 2002, 17:30 GMT
Straw urges Arafat to halt violence
Jack Straw and Bulent Ecevit
Mr Straw comes direct from talks with Turkey's premier
UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has urged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to clamp down on violence against Israel as a first step to restarting the Middle East peace process.

It's possible to reel off similiar lists on both sides and very long lists of people who have been killed in suicide bombings

Jack Straw
During a visit to the region Mr Straw compared suicide bombings conducted against Israel with the killing of 29 people in the Northern Ireland town of Omagh by dissident Irish republicans in 1998.

"If that had continued weekend after weekend, it would have completely changed our politics and the ability of the British government to take action as we would have wished," he said.

Mr Straw held talks with his counterpart, Israeli foreign secretary Shimon Peres after the country's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, cancelled a meeting with the foreign secretary on the grounds of ill health.

The UK have expressed concern about a European Union peace initiative which is at odds with the US strategy.

EU countries led by France want quick moves to create an independent Palestinian state while both the UK and US want the process to move forward more cautiously.

Mr Peres said: "I think a split between Europe and America is dangerous for peace and also it's counter-productive in an attempt to continue the strike against terror."

At a joint news conference with Mr Peres, Mr Straw said that the suicide attacks perpetrated against Israel had been "almost impossible to imagine".

The UK foreign secretary is due to visit Mr Arafat who is currently under house arrest in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Speaking ahead of that Mr Straw said: "The first steps that have to be taken are to make the life of the people of Israel much more secure, and that means clamping down on the terrorism which comes from the occupied territories."

No criticism of Israel

But Mr Straw avoided criticising Israeli raids on the Gaza Strip on Wednesday in which five Palestinian policemen were killed.

"I regret the death of anybody in this region and elsewhere.

"It's possible to reel off similiar lists on both sides and very long lists of people who have been killed in suicide bombings."

On Tuesday, Mr Peres made proposals to try to halt further outbreaks of violence in the West Bank and Gaza - including a ceasefire and mutual recognition between Israel and a Palestinian state.

But they were reportedly dismissed by Mr Sharon, 76, and Israeli defence minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.

Peace building

Mr Straw travelled to Israel from Istanbul, where he attended a joint summit of the European Union and the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and held talks with the Turkish Prime Minister, Bulent Ecevit.

During a previous peace-building mission to the Middle East, Mr Straw offended the Israelis by saying: "One of the factors which helps breed terrorism is the anger which many people in this region feel at events over the years in Palestine."

On that occasion Mr Sharon only agreed to meet Mr Straw after a 15-minute phone call from UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

And Mr Peres called off a state dinner, but met with Mr Straw in his office instead.

The BBC's James Reynolds
"Jack Straw came with harsh words"
See also:

14 Jan 02 | Middle East
UN impotence over Mid-East crisis
14 Jan 02 | Middle East
Europe seeks elusive Mid-East peace
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