Britain and US complicit in Jericho raid, says Abbas

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The Independent Online

Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, condemned the armed Israeli raid on Jericho's prison as an "ugly crime that cannot be forgiven" yesterday and strongly implied Britain and the US had been complicit in it.

Touring the ruins of the devastated jail less than 24 hours after the surrender of six wanted Palestinians after a day-long siege, Mr Abbas said their arrest had been "illegal" and that the raid by troops, bulldozers and tanks had been a "humiliation for the Palestinian people and a violation of all the agreements".

The Israeli acting Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, said yesterday that the six men would be indicted according to Israeli law and they will be " punished as they deserve". They comprise the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader, Ahmed Saadat, and five others accused of the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi in 2001. They also include Fuad Shobaki, accused of involvement in the Karin A shipment of arms to the Palestinian Authority in 2002.

In his second uncharacteristically strong denunciation of Britain and the US, Mr Abbas said that the Israeli force had arrived on Tuesday within 10 minutes of the three British monitors abandoning the jail. "I'm giving the facts," he added. "They [the monitors] left at 9.20am and the Israelis came in at 9.30am. How can we explain that?"

Mr Abbas's remarks came as British officials moved to defend London against widespread and continuing condemnation for facilitating the Israeli raid by ending their 14-strong monitoring mission at the prison on Tuesday morning.

While acknowledging the two countries' consuls general had written to him on 8 March demanding improved security for their monitors and significant tightening of the regime under which the prisoners were held, Mr Abbas declared: "Britain had informed us a week ago about their intention of pulling out, but they did not say when."

British sources pointed out the consuls' letter had explicitly warned that, unless their demands were met, the two countries "would withdraw our monitors with immediate effect," and that an unspecified but " serious and credible threat" to the security of the monitoring mission had been issued in January 2006.

The sources repeated that the British consul general, John Jenkins, had telephoned Mr Abbas's office on four separate occasions last weekend to make sure Mr Abbas had read the letter and understood its importance.

The threat was in addition to a series of fears about the security of the monitors, including that of a prison break-out, riots inside and outside the prison, the possibility that a threat to kidnap the monitors would be carried out, and that roadside bombs could be used against them as they were against US personnel in Gaza in 2003.

The concerns expressed in the consuls' letter about security were additional to those about infractions of the 2002 Ramallah agreement, under which the prisoners were held in Jericho and which ranged from the liberal use of mobile telephones by the prisoners to unsanctioned visits numbering up to 90 a week for Mr Saadat and Mr Shobaki.

The sources acknowledged Israel had expressed increasing impatience with the regime at Jericho after the PFLP claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv last year.

But it also looked increasingly likely yesterday that an additional factor was the embarrassment ­ not to mention potential backlash from Israel ­that the US and the UK might have faced if the mission had still been in place if and when the new Hamas-led Palestinian Authority had carried out its intention to release Mr Saadat.

While that would have breached the 2002 agreement under which the men were held, Hamas would have argued that Mr Saadat had never been convicted of any charge and that the Palestinian high court had ruled in favour of his release.

The British, who vigorously deny complicity with Israel over the withdrawal of the monitors, say they told no one of the exact timing withdrawal of the monitors. But Israel was kept informed of the discussions with the Palestinians over the US and UK demand and, with its forces on high alert, were aware of it as soon as they passed through the Jericho checkpoint.

While some Palestinian ministers have argued the raid was designed to boost Mr Olmert's fortunes, other observers have pointed out that it was gamble since if it had gone wrong ­ or if there are further retaliations before the 28 March elections ­that could help the Likud party at the expense of Mr Olmert's Kadima.