Bush ties shipload of arms to terror

He avoids blaming Arafat, hopes peace effort isn't imperiled

January 11, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush said yesterday that he suspected that a seized shipload of weapons bound for Palestinians was intended to "promote terror." But he avoided blaming Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat directly and said the United States would continue to deal with the Palestinian leadership.

In his first public comments about the attempted smuggling operation, Bush sought to prevent the episode from derailing U.S. efforts to broker a cease-fire and future peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Last week, Israeli commandos seized the ship, loaded with millions of dollars' worth of rockets, plastic explosives, armor-piercing weapons and ammunition that Israel says were sent from Iran and were intended to arm Palestinians.

Israeli officials contend that Arafat was deeply involved in the arms-smuggling operation, and a group of U.S. congressmen canceled a meeting with the Palestinian Authority president, saying they were sure he had played a role.

Bush refused to go that far.

"I think it's very important for our administration to remain engaged with both parties" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bush said at the White House.

"I want to make sure that the evidence is definitive, but I'm, like many, beginning to suspect that those arms were headed to promote terror. And terror will never enable us to achieve peace in the Middle East.

"I believe that once the evidence is in, that those responsible need to be held to account. On the other hand, I also believe our country must stay engaged in the process."

In his remarks, the president also warned Iran not to allow any al-Qaida terrorists to hide in that country. And he said that "we'll deal with them" if the Iranians try to destabilize the interim government in Afghanistan.

Bush said he planned to send U.S. envoy Anthony C. Zinni back to the Middle East "to keep pushing for a dialogue" between Israel and the Palestinians, "to keep pushing for the process to go forward."

As for Arafat, Bush said he "must renounce terror and must reject those in the region that would disrupt the peace process by use of terrorist means."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, announced that Israel was suspending ties with the Palestinian Authority, saying contacts would not resume until the authority arrested figures involved in arranging arms shipment.

Bush's comments came a day after an Israeli delegation made what Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called "a compelling case that the weapons were headed for the Palestinian Authority."

Describing the smuggling as "a very serious matter," Armitage said that had the weapons arrived in the Palestinian territories, the "violence and deaths that emanated would have been unprecedented." This, he said, would have produced "a strategic change in the level of violence."

"It seems, at a minimum, that some Palestinian officials wanted the option of continued, heightened violence over the long term," Armitage said in an interview.

Another U.S. official said it was hard to imagine that Arafat, or people close to him, did not know of the smuggling operation. An Israeli security official maintained that Arafat actually set aside money for it, though the official said it was unclear whether that money was actually used.

Despite Israeli claims to have evidence of Arafat's complicity, the administration signaled that it was not conclusive enough to implicate Arafat personally.

"The information we are receiving and developing on our own make it clear that there are linkages to the Palestinian Authority," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday. "I have not seen information that yet links it directly to Chairman Arafat."

Arafat has denied any knowledge and has ordered an inquiry.

The United States has demanded an explanation from Arafat about the shipment, and Armitage has hinted that other steps might be in store. "We are still formulating our approach," he said.

The Israeli security official asserted that the operation involved the Palestinian Authority, Iran and the Lebanese guerrilla organization Hezbollah. The Palestinians, he said, wanted weapons, while Iran sought a foothold in the Palestinian territories. Hezbollah, which has close ties to Iran, sought a new way of inflicting damage on Israel, the Israeli official said.

In an indication of the project's sophistication, he said, the weapons were intended to arrive on the Gaza Strip coast in submersible containers that would float just below the surface, with only a small buoy visible from above.

The Katyusha rockets included in the shipment would have enabled the Palestinians to strike deep into Israeli territory, even at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, the Israeli security official said.

The official said the shipment was loaded onto the ship from an island off Iran and was headed to the Suez Canal, where Egyptian officials were to be bribed to let it pass. The cargo would then be transferred to other vessels destined for the Gaza coast.

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