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Major dismisses the Arafat factor as he attacks Clinton

Relations between John Major and President Bill Clinton sank to a new low last night after the Prime Minister made a thinly veiled attack on Mr Clinton's readiness to meet Gerry Adams before the Sinn Fein leader had renounced violence.

At the start of a two-day visit to Israel, where he will meet Yasser Arafat, Mr Major angrily dismissed as "mischievous" comparisons being made in Washington between the Palestine Liberation Organisation's leader and the president of Sinn Fein.

Mr Major's remarks came as Tory MPs - led by Andrew Hunter, chairman of the Northern Ireland backbench committee - prepared to back an Ulster Unionist motion in the Commons calling for no ministerial meetings with Sinn Fein until progress has been made on decommissioning IRA weapons.

But Martin McGuinness, vice-president of Sinn Fein, said in a television interview yesterday that it was "not realistic" to expect Sinn Fein to demand commitments on handing over weapons from the IRA before they were in talks with British ministers.

The Prime Minister said Mr Arafat had renounced terrorism and signed a declaration of peace, but Mr Adams was still associated with a fully- formed terrorist organisation. In remarks clearly aimed at Mr Clinton, Mr Major said: "It was only after Chairman Arafat signed a declaration of principles that I met him in Downing Street."

He added: "The [Israeli] government entered into diplomatic contacts with Chairman Arafat after he had explicitly renounced terrorism and committed himself unambiguously to peace ... I have not seen it comprehensively renounced by Mr Adams."

Officials sought to shrug off the Commons motion to be tabled today with backbench Tory backing. Sources suggested that in the current mood, the Government had no difficulty accepting the views of its backbenchers.

Ulster Unionists suggested last night they had been told that "30 to 40" Tory MPs including Mr Hunter were prepared to back the pointedly-worded Early Day Motion.

Its author is Ken Maginnis, theUUP spokesman for security, and senior Government sources showed no sign of embarrassment that Tories were prepared to sign it. The motion will draw attention to Mr Major's declaration in the Commons in December that the decommissioning of arms did "have to be acted upon during preliminary discussions that are taking place at the moment", and that if progress was not made on the issue no British government should "sit down with those who retain weapons".

Adams in New York, page 2