Arafat visits Hamas founder in hospital

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Palestinian President Yasser Arafat visited the founder and spiritual leader of the militant Palestinian movement Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in a Jordanian hospital yesterday.

Sheikh Yassin was released by Israel on Wednesday under mysterious circumstances. Speculation is rising that he may return to Gaza, agencies report.

President Arafat was driven to the hospital by King Hussein of Jordan, who received the ailing cleric on Wednesday just hours after appealing to Israel for his release from jail on humanitarian grounds.

The release was hailed in Jordan as a humanitarian triumph for King Hussein. But the monarch has come in for sharp criticism from Palestinian officials, who said Yassin should have been returned home to Gaza. They said Arafat, who had continually demanded that Israel free the wheelchair-bound Sheikh Yassin, had been kept in the dark on his release.

But Arafat put a brave face on the king's intervention yesterday. "I greatly thank King Hussein for this blessed effort which he has exerted to release Sheikh Yassin which we had talked about many times in the past and now (the monarch) has fulfilled his promise." Arafat added.

Israel has not said if it would allow him to return home to the Gaza Strip. But a Hamas leader said he will return to Gaza in two weeks. "Sheikh Ahmed Yassin intends to return to Gaza in two weeks and King Hussein confirmed today that he is free to return whenever he wants." Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi told Reuters in Gaza.

There was intense speculation that Sheikh Yassin's release was connected with the arrest of two men for an attack on a Hamas leader in Jordan. King Hussein reportedly believed the men were acting for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.

The men were travelling on Canadian passports, and yesterday Canada expressed unhappiness about the incident. It warned Israel over what it believes may have been the "improper use" of Canadian documents.