Jerusalem on high alert over disputed mosque site

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About 15 Palestinians were arrested in East Jerusalem yesterday as thousands of people worshipped at the city's al-Aqsa mosque, largely without incident despite continued tension over nearby renovation work.

With 3,000 policemen in and around the Old City, there was no recurrence of last Friday's running clashes in the mosque compound, despite a declaration by a leading Muslim campaigner against the work that it was an Israeli "crime".

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has invited Turkey to send an expert team to examine archaeological work as a prelude to building a new walkway to the compound through the Mughrabi gate, used by non-Muslims visitors.

Israel denies protesters' claims that the excavations are endangering the foundations of al-Aqsa. But, amid widespread Palestinian fears that the walkway will increase Israeli control over the site, the third holiest in Islam, Uri Lupolianski, Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox Jewish mayor, has suspended its construction to allow objections to be heard. The excavations continue.

The police have tightened already heavy restrictions on worship at the mosque by barring all men under the age of 50. Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the Islamic Movement's northern branch, who was issued with a court order not to enter the Old City, warned he would enter the mosque "any time I think is right".

He said: "The Israeli establishment is putting al-Aqsa in risk and that is a crime. They are trying to destroy all Islamic archaeology. I call on the world to express its opinion regarding these crimes and ask the Arab world to insist on the truth and save al-Aqsa."

David Rotem, a Knesset member in Yisrael Beiteinu, a hard-right component of the governing coalition, called for the sheikh's arrest, saying "his citizenship must be revoked and he must be expelled from Israel."

On the eve of the arrival of the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to chair Monday's summit with Mr Olmert and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud opposition, said Mr Abbas should say "unequivocally that he will not sanction a [Palestinian coalition] government ... that does not explicitly recognise the State of Israel."

But he insisted in his first interview with al-Jazeera that fruitful negotiations were possible if "moderate forces" prevailed and added: "I recognise the right of the Palestinian people to exist, to govern themselves."