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Barak and Arafat clash on Wye deal

THE RECENTLY defrosted land-for-security accord under which Israel agreed to hand parts of the West Bank to the Palestinians faced a fresh crisis yesterday, with differences on both sides over how it should be put into practice.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, issued a frustrated statement accusing the Palestinians of inflexibility in rejecting his plan to wrap the final stage of West Bank withdrawal into permanent peace negotiations. But Mr Barak - who was yesterday on his first official trip to Moscow to meet the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin - came in for sharp criticism from Yasser Arafat, who accused Israel of trying to wriggle out of some of its commitments under the agreement, the Wye accord.

The United States-brokered accord was signed last October by Mr Barak's predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, but the latter froze it two months later, complaining that the Palestinians were breaching their commitment to crack down on Islamic militants and tighten security.

Mr Barak told his cabinet on Sunday that Israeli troop withdrawals from the West Bank could begin on 1 October, with other aspects of the accord beginning by the start of September. He said this timetable was regardless of whether the Palestinians accepted his request to modify the Wye agreement by fusing its last stage with talks on an overall peace deal.

The US-brokered accord requires Israel to make phased troop withdrawals from 13.1 per cent of the West Bank, in return for Palestinian steps against militants, and other measures.

After defeating Mr Netanyahu in May's elections, Mr Barak pledged to implement the accord in full, if Mr Arafat insisted on this. But he is pushing for a delay in the final stage so that it can be folded into talks on a permanent peace agreement. He believes this would lessen the risk of friction in the West Bank over Jewish settlements - several of which will be isolated by withdrawal - derailing peace negotiations.

Mr Arafat yesterday insisted on the full implementation of the accord, saying he had the backing of the US and Egypt. "There is no contradiction between the US, Palestinian and Egyptian positions, but there is a contradiction between the Israeli positions and the rest," he said, after returning fromtalks with Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian President.

As tensions over Wye escalated in the Middle East, Moscow was quick to seize on Mr Barak's visit as an opportunity to underscore its role as co-sponsor of peace negotiations. Mr Yeltsin emphasised that Russia wanted stronger ties with Israel, and said the peace process had been going along "too softly".

But talks also concentrated on some stumbling blocks in the Moscow- Tel Aviv relationship - notably, Israel's concerns about nuclear missile technology transfers to Iran and Iraq and anti-Semitism in Russia.

A Moscow synagogue was recently bombed, and a Jewish community leader was stabbed by a Russian youth with a swastika painted on his chest. Yesterday brought news of the desecration of Jewish graves in Tomsk, Siberia. Mr Yeltsin denounced these incidents as "abominable manifestations" of prejudice. But Russian politicians have frequently made anti-Semitic remarks without significant consequences.