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Arafat arrests Hamas chiefs


Ramallah, West Bank

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, yesterday arrested three leading members of the military wing of Hamas, amid growing complaints from Palestinians on the West Bank that they are effectively besieged.

Under intense pressure from Israel and the United States Mr Arafat has so far arrested 600 Islamic militants as well as taking over mosques, schools and charities run by Hamas. Palestinian security forces in Gaza say they have arrested three men - Abdel Satari, Salem Abu Marouf and Kamal Khalifa - wanted for masterminding the suicide bomb attacks which killed 58 people in two weeks.

In Ramallah, the Palestinian town just north of Jerusalem, anger is growing against Israel rather than Hamas for the clampdown which has crippled business and made it difficult to get in or out.

"In the last two days we have got close to an explosion," said Mahmoud Jasser, an official of Fatah, Mr Arafat's political movement. "You can't move between the 465 villages on the West Bank. People can't work. Now they are saying that Israel is not serious about the peace process." He admitted that Fatah was divided on what line to take, which in practice means the degree to which it is prepared to cooperate with Israeli security.

A sign of the division between Palestinians is the row over the future of Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian security organisation for the West Bank, who at the weekend was denying that he had been fired by Mr Arafat. Based in Jericho he is the most powerful Palestinian in the West Bank and a veteran member of Fatah who spent 16 years in jail. On Saturday, however, he was reported to have been replaced Hussein al-Sheikh, the police commander for Ramallah.

The reason for Mr Rajoub's differences with Mr Arafat probably stem from his failure to stop the suicide bombers, whose local organiser, Mohammed Abu Wardeh, was a student at a teacher training college in Ramallah. Mr Rajoub has always advocated treating Hamas as errant nationalists and not as enemies.

In Gaza on Saturday night Mr Arafat met George Tenet, the deputy director of the US Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA reportedly repeated Israeli demands that Mr Arafat arrest five members of Izzedine al Qasim, the military wing of Hamas. The PLO leader appears to have decided that he has no choice - in the face of overwhelming Israeli and international pressure - but to clamp down on Hamas' military and civilian activities.

In reply Hamas said in a leaflet that it had decided to resume its suicide operations because the Palestinian Authority had gone "too far in its attack on Hamas". It said that the summit of 31 countries on terrorism in Egypt on Wednesday is "a desperate attempt to save the Zionists from humiliation and lift their cowardly spirits which were destroyed by our martyrs' courage".

In Israeli occupied south Lebanon Muslim guerrillas yesterday killed two Israeli soldiers and wounded four according to pro-Israeli militia sources.