Arafat: Abu Mazen has betrayed the Palestinian people

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There were signs of an intensifying power struggle for the Palestinian leadership after it emerged yesterday that the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, had criticised his Prime Minister, Abu Mazen, in an extraordinary outburst during a meeting with a senior United Nations official.

Mr Arafat accused Abu Mazen of "betraying the interests of the Palestinian people" and, according to a report in Ha'aretz newspaper yesterday, asked: "How does he dare to stand next to an Israeli flag and next to [Ariel] Sharon and to act friendly with a man whose history is known to all the world?"

Reliable sources said the quotations were not accurate - but that they did reflect Mr Arafat's attitude at the meeting where he had spoken out against Abu Mazen in a fury.

The jockeying for position within the Palestinian Authority (PA) is weakening Abu Mazen in the midst of talks with Israel over implementing theroad-map peace plan. Already this week he has had to postpone a meeting with Mr Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, because he was coming under such heavy criticism from the Fatah ruling party's central committee - one of the main centres of power in the PA.

The UN refused to comment on Mr Arafat's outburst yesterday, which came during a meeting with Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN special co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process. But a Western diplomatic source said of the Palestinian administrative centre in Ramallah: "It's rather chilly up there. People are changing sides. There's some back-stabbing going on."

A lot of the criticism of Abu Mazen has centred on his handling of negotiations to secure the release of thousands of prisoners - an issue that is not even in the road-map, but which has huge emotional resonance for Palestinians. Israel hasagreed to release a few hundred and is refusing to release any it regards as implicit in the killing of Israelis. The Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, indicated yesterday Israel may agree to a token release of a few prisoners from the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Many observers believe Abu Mazen's opponents in Ramallah are using the issue against him. There is huge resentment at the way the peace process is going, not only over the prisoner issue, but also because most Palestinians believe they are getting little from Israel. Most consider recent Israeli "withdrawals" as purely cosmetic - the areas are still under Israeli military closure. Abu Mazen's approval ratings are woefully low.

Observers say his opponents have seized on this. A struggle is emerging in which many of the old guard, who returned with Mr Arafat under the Oslo process from exile, fear they are being squeezed out of power by ambitious young men. Many of the recent attacks on Abu Mazen have centred on his security minister, Mohammed Dahlan, one of the ambitious young.

Mr Arafat fears he is being squeezed out by Abu Mazen - the US and Israel have, after all, made it clear that squeezing Mr Arafat out is their policy. It is believed Mr Arafat acted against Abu Mazen and Mr Dahlan recently by offering a job with some power over security matters to Jibril Rajoub, Mr Dahlan's rival who was passed over for office by Abu Mazen, partly because he is unpopular among Palestinians and seen as too close to Israel.

At the same time, Fatah's old guard is trying to disband the Fatah Steering Committee, a group of elected local representatives that was the powerbase of another ambitious younger man now in an Israeli prison, Marwan Barghouti.