Arafat and Barak meet 'face-to-face'

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The Independent Online

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak have started direct talks aimed at ending a week of Middle East violence.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak have started direct talks aimed at ending a week of Middle East violence.

Amid fresh bloodshed in the West Bank and Gaza, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urged them to return to "the psychology of peacemaking."

Barak has earlier said talks would not resume until the violence ends.

Albright held separate meetings today with the two Mideast leaders, and then convened a three-way meeting.

Arafat had said earlier that he would see Barak only if there was a guarantee that his people would be protected and an inquiry was launched into violence on the West Bank and Gaza.

In a week of strife, 60 people have died, most of them Palestinians in exchanges with Israeli soldiers and police. In the latest incidents, two Palestinians were killed overnight.

Asked about the importance of a Barak-Arafat meeting, Palestinian Legislative Council member Ziad Abu-Zayyad said: "I am always in favor of talking to each other, and I believe that if people do not talk together, they will lose, but if they talk, they will have a chance to win."

In her two-hour session with Barak at the residence of US Ambassador Felix Rohatyn, the prime minister told Albright that the Palestinians were violating agreements with Israel by acquiring illegal arms and shooting at soldiers, Barak's office said.

Barak said he held the Palestinians responsible for the violence.

"We hold Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority responsible for the initiation of this wave of violence and we believe the Palestine leadership has to make up its mind whether they want to reach a peace agreement that we believe is in our reach alternatively to leave the whole region into deadlock," Barak said.

Afterward, Albright met with Arafat for 90 minutes.

The State Department, meanwhile, issued a "worldwide caution" warning Americans to be vigilant about their personal security in light of the violence in the Middle East.

These events "have raised the possibility that there may be protests in support of Palestinians throughout the Gulf region and elsewhere," the department said.

Earlier, Arafat told reporters after a session with French President Jacques Chirac that the three-way meeting was not a certainty.

"The meeting will depend on the one I will have with Albright," Arafat said.

Asked what his conditions were, he said: "Protection and an international inquiry commission." Arafat did not elaborate.

A senior Palestinian official has said an international inquiry into Israel's actions would be a condition of reviving the peace talks. But Barak's office has said he "totally rejected the call for an international investigation".

"I think that, if there are questions and if there are queries, we can answer them ourselves. We don't need a committee biased against Israel to investigate things," Justice Minister Yossi Beilin told Israel radio.

Barak told reporters: "We accept American ideas that each side will examine its own activities, that our security teams will sit together to clarify what happened."

Albright is attempting to salvage the already-stalled Middle East peace process, which has been set back further by the latest outbreak of violence. She was to be joined by CIA Director George Tenet, who was planning to take part in discussions on security issues.

Fighting broke out last week after an Israeli hard-line leader, Ariel Sharon, visited one of Jerusalem's most hotly contested holy sites, a spot revered by both Jews and Muslims.

As diplomatic efforts gained momentum, there were no signs of the violence abating.

Two Palestinians were shot dead early today in the West Bank, and three Israeli military outposts in the Gaza Strip came under attack overnight.

In northern Israel, a large forest fire raged, one of more than 100 blazes that police believe have been set by Arab arsonists. Most have been extinguished.

Europe has pointed the finger of blame at Sharon, who visited a shrine, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Al Haram As-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary.

The dispute over who will control the site is the main obstacle to a peace agreement.

Chirac has blamed the violence on an "irresponsible provocation" - a clear reference to Sharon's visit to the holy site.

Sharon, notorious among Palestinians for launching the bloody war against Arafat's forces in Lebanon in 1982, denied responsibility and blamed Arafat.

After the Paris talks, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key player in the Middle East peace process, is planning a leadership summit tomorrow.

Barak and Arafat have both agreed to come, Mubarak said.

Officials said the Paris talks would be more than just a bid to stem the violence.

"The meeting ... is a step in the direction of the renewal of the negotiations and not just the end of violence here," acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami told Israel radio.

A diplomatic drive, led by President Bill Clinton, to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement had lost momentum even before the recent violence, stalling after a July summit in Camp David, Maryland.

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