Kofi Annan leads last-ditch efforts to prevent Middle East sliding into war

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Frantic diplomatic efforts were under way yesterday to douse the flames of the Middle East crisis, amid signs that the Palestinian uprising will rage on unabated.

Frantic diplomatic efforts were under way yesterday to douse the flames of the Middle East crisis, amid signs that the Palestinian uprising will rage on unabated.

An Israeli government spokesman said Yasser Arafat had failed to end the violence by last night's deadline, defying an ultimatum issued by the Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, who has threatened to hit back hard against the unrest.

The United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, arrived for talks with Mr Barak and Mr Arafat as bullets flew during more clashes on the West Bank. But, smarting from a UN Security Council Resolution condemning Israel's use of excessive force, Mr Barak refused to meet him until Mr Annan had first seen the Palestinian leader.

Israeli troops and rioting Palestinians battled in several West Bank hotspots - notably Hebron and Ramallah - as the conflict began to slide into war, with armed Jewish settlers and Palestinian militants trying to drive each other off the land by force.

The Middle East is nervously awaiting Israel's next move. Mr Barak has a well-equipped modern army, and holds the power to seal off the occupied territories, cutting the flow of goods, workers electricity and water.

But Israel's one million Arab citizens have also risen up violently in the past fortnight - much to the horror of the rest of Israel - and will do so again when they perceive his treatment of the Palestinians to be too harsh.

Mr Arafat has privately told the United States he cannot be expected to call an end to the violence, in which more than 90 have died, while the Israeli military is killing Palestinians.

But he does not have full control of those involved in the uprising. The mood on the streets of the occupied territories remains highly charged and there are signs of a rift between him and his Fatah organisation, which is playing a leading role in the violence.

Yesterday, as several thousand Palestinians marched through Ramallah for the funeral of another victim of anIsraeli bullet, a declaration was being circulated by Fatah officials that called for theso-called "Jerusalem intifada" to continue.

Ziad Abu Ain, an official on the Fatah West Bank higher council, which drew up the document, said: "He [Mr Arafat] sent out an order to stop everything three days ago, but we know what's beneficial to us. Afterwards, he will thank usfor this."

Last night the Palestinian television station run by Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority broadcast a student union announcement calling for all Palestinians, including those living in Israel, to join "the fight for independence".

The militant Islamic Hamas organisation, which is opposed to the Olso peace process, has called for more demonstrations, a code for attackson Israeli military outposts,and another "day of rage" this week.

Mr Annan can expect to come under pressure from Israel to help to secure the release of three Israeli soldiers captured on Saturday by Hizbollah guerrillas.

The Palestinian leadership wants an investigation of theviolence by a United Nations panel, which includes prominent world figures. But the Israelis say they will only accept an inquiry that would involve themselves, America and the Palestinians.

The Palestinians see the Americans as strongly pro-Israeli, so that would do nothing to defuse the crisis.