Peace effort starts anew

U.S. envoy in talks with Sharon, Arafat to halt the bloodshed

A `comeback' for U.S.

Bush administration plunges into Mideast as violence escalates

May 28, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- The United States plunged anew into Middle East diplomacy yesterday against the grim backdrop of two car bombings in West Jerusalem.

William Burns, the new assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, met separately with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a bid to bring about a period of calm leading to the resumption of peace talks.

His mission, which will include further meetings with each, marks the most serious move by the Bush administration to try to end the bitter eight-month conflict that has claimed more than 500 lives.

Hours before he met with Arafat in the West Bank town of Ramallah, a car loaded with mortar shells and bullets exploded near Jerusalem's Russian Compound, a mostly Jewish neighborhood shaken by an earlier blast about midnight Saturday.

The explosions, about 10 hours apart, caused light casualties, but the second sent mortar shells flying hundreds of yards, with one landing in Independence Park near the U.S. Consulate. Two militant groups claimed responsibility -- the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine for the first bombing, Islamic Jihad for the second.

The Russian Compound is notorious as the site of an Israeli jail where Palestinians are taken for interrogation.

Casualties might have been heavier in the morning blast, except that many Israelis were taking a long weekend before Shavuot, a religious holiday that started last night which commemorates the Israelites' reception of the Ten Commandments.

The bombings jolted a city emotionally drained from Thursday night's disaster at the Versailles Hall -- unrelated to the violence -- in which a floor collapsed beneath a wedding reception, killing 23 and injuring hundreds. A judge has ordered 10 people held in the collapse.

Burns strongly condemned the bombings and said he had urged Arafat to do "everything possible" to stop such attacks. He urged Israel to show "restraint" -- that is, to not retaliate.

The Bush administration had hesitated to get as deeply involved in the Middle East conflict as its predecessor and did not appoint a special envoy to succeed the Clinton administration's Dennis Ross. But in the face of escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence, the Bush administration acted upon a report by the international commission led by former Sen. George J. Mitchell of Maine.

The report recommends a halt to hostilities and resumption of security cooperation between the two sides. It suggests a cooling-off period and "confidence-building measures," including a freeze on construction in Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism and incitement. Finally, it calls for a resumption of peace talks.

Burns is here to try to implement the Mitchell proposals, which both sides say they generally endorse. He was to hold a new round of meetings today.

Sharon warned Burns that Israel's 5-day-old policy of restraint would not last much longer if Palestinians keep up attacks such as yesterday's bombings.

"The situation is quite serious. There have been 92 terror attacks since we declared the unilateral cease-fire," said Raanan Gissin, a Sharon spokesman. "Our time is running out. We're not going to continue to restrain ourselves indefinitely."

Palestinians, in turn, reported numerous instances in which Israeli soldiers breached their new, more restrictive rules of engagement. The rules allow Israeli troops to fire only in life-threatening situations or when they can pinpoint someone firing at them, and require that they not enter Palestinian-ruled territory without political approval or carry out assassinations.

Gissin said Israel was prepared "to go the full mile with the Mitchell commission report" to bring a "cessation of hostilities and conditions that will enable a resumption of negotiations." But Israel has said that it would not freeze building in the settlements.

Nabil Abu Rdainah, a top adviser to Arafat, called the Burns missions "a new beginning, a new comeback for the United States."

"The opportunity is very important if the Israelis are serious and if the Americans exercise their responsibility and good intentions."

Asked whether Arafat could force Palestinian militants to halt attacks on Israelis, Abu Rdainah said: "If Arafat gets a political solution, he will be strong enough to commit himself and abide by agreements. ... Once he has something to offer our people, everything will be achievable."

Arafat met with Burns fresh from a meeting of Islamic nations in Qatar, where he delivered a bitter tirade against Israel. He complained that Palestinian land was being subjected to a "conspiracy of Judaization" and that Israel's war is aimed "at the extermination of our existence from our homeland."

He accused Israel of using "internationally prohibited bombs, including depleted uranium, poison gases and radioactive material." No evidence has emerged to support the allegation that Israel is using banned weapons.

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