Arafat meets with Berlusconi before visiting the pope

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Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met with Premier Silvio Berlusconi on Thursday, before going to the papal summer retreat outside Rome for an audience with Pope John Paul II.

As Arafat was holding talks with Berlusconi, about 50 people staged a demonstration outside the premier's office, demanding that the Palestinian Authority stop executions of alleged Israeli informers.

Berlusconi's office gave no immediate details of the talks.

Arafat's 24­hour visit to Rome, scheduled to end later Thursday, comes amid rising tension in the Middle East.

On Tuesday, eight Palestinians were killed in an Israeli helicopter raid on an office of the militant group Hamas in Nablus. The mass funeral held Wednesday was one of the biggest and angriest during 10 months of Palestinian­Israeli fighting.

In talks with Italy's Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero Wednesday, Arafat said that the raid underscored the need for international observers to be sent to the region quickly. He said the violence in the Middle East could spiral out of control and have repercussions beyond the region if an international force isn't deployed.

Israel has rejected posting international observers in the Palestinian territories, charging that Israel would be unfairly blamed for retaliatory and preventive attacks.

Ruggiero repeated Italy's support for the Palestinians and stressed the need to alleviate what he called the "disastrous" situation of the Palestinian economy as a result of Israeli security closures. He also urged Arafat to do everything possible to resume the path of dialogue with Israel and implement recommendations on ending the violence by the international commission headed by former US Sen. George Mitchell.

Arafat's visit to Rome follows one by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had his first talks with the new center­right government last month. Sharon did not meet with John Paul.

Arafat and the pope have met on a number of occasions.

"We are very proud of the particular relationship we have with the Holy Father," Arafat said in an interview with the newspaper La Stampa.

Italy holds the rotating presidency of the Group of Eight. Last month, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, an important Mideast negotiator, also came to Rome.

While Italy has been a strong supporter of Palestinian rights, it has also supported measures to protect Israel's security.