Germany ready to host Middle East talks in Berlin

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Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has proposed that he hold cease­fire talks with the Israeli foreign minister in Berlin, and visiting German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said he was willing to host such a meeting.

Arafat raised the idea after a two­hour meeting with Fischer at his office in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

In a joint news conference, Arafat said he welcomed Fischer's suggestion that he meet with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. "I prefer to hold the meeting with Shimon Peres in your office in Berlin, if you accept."

Fischer appeared to be taken by surprise. He said he was ready to host such talks, but suggested there might be other venues.

"If there is a need of a direct meeting between you, Mr. President, and the foreign minister, we think it is a very good idea. If this should happen in Berlin, in the office, the door will be always open, but I think there are some other places not so far away in regional distances. But this is a good idea," Fischer said.

It was not immediately clear how the Israelis felt about such a meeting.

Peres was en route to Hungary, and his office had no immediate comment. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, also declined comment.

However, Peres said earlier this week that he would like to meet with Arafat, and that such a meeting was "visible on the horizon."

Fischer met with Peres on Monday, and held talks with Sharon on Tuesday, after the meeting with Arafat in Ramallah.

Peres reportedly has proposed a gradual truce, that is to begin in areas that have been generally quiet. In those areas, Israel would first ease stringent travel restrictions on Palestinians.

Fischer had assumed the role of Mideast mediator once before. Following a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv disco in June that killed 21 people, Fischer, who heard the blast from his hotel window, persuaded Arafat to call a cease­fire, avoiding Israeli retaliation. However, the terms of the truce negotiated by CIA chief George Tenet never took hold.

In overnight clashes, 11 Palestinians were injured by Israeli army fire in the West Bank and Gaza. One of the wounded was in critical condition.

At the United Nations, meanwhile, the United States made clear Monday it would not support Arab efforts to get Security Council endorsement for a resolution dealing with the Middle East crisis.

Without backing from the United States ­ a veto­wielding member of the council ­ it was unlikely that a draft resolution circulated by the Palestinians last week would go for a vote in the council.

The draft, backed by Arab and Muslim states, calls for an end to the Israeli takeover of Orient House ­ the unofficial Palestinian headquarters in east Jerusalem ­ an immediate cessation of violence, and the creation of a "monitoring mechanism," which Israeli opposes.