Ministers boycott swearing-in of Palestinian emergency cabinet

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The Independent Online

A frail-looking Yasser Arafat swore in Ahmed Qurei's eight-man emergency government in his besieged Ramallah headquarters yesterday, but the new Prime Minister immediately ran into trouble.

Only six ministers took the oath. Nasr Yousef, the Interior Minister, boycotted the ceremony along with Jawad Tibi, the Health Minister. General Yousef wants to unite all the security forces under his leadership. He is resisting the President's efforts to impose minders to curtail his powers.

Mr Arafat had appointed three deputies - Haj Ismail Jaber and Abdel Razaq al Majayda, the heads of national security in the West Bank and Gaza, and Amin al Hindi, head of Palestinian intelligence. General Yousef insists on choosing his own men.

Amid rumours of failing health, the 74-year-old Palestinian leader was helped into the auditorium by aides. He looked pale and his voice was faint. Asked how he felt, he smiled and said: "As you see it." Mr Arafat had been unwell for a few days, sources in his office confirmed. They suggested he might have food poisoning or perhaps a virus.

Israeli and Syrian leaders traded threats yesterday in the wake of Sunday's Israeli air strike on what it claimed was a Palestinian military training camp near Damascus.

Despite Israeli media criticism of the raid, Ariel Sharon said Israel would not hesitate to hit its enemies wherever they were. "Israel will not be deterred from protecting its citizens and will strike its enemies in every place and every way," the Prime Minister said, three days after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 19 Israelis in a Haifa restaurant.

In Damascus, President Bashar Assad said Mr Sharon's government used war to justify its existence. The air strike, he said, was a failed attempt to undercut Syria's role in the Middle East.

"We can, with full confidence," he promised the pan-Arab paper Al Hayat, "say that what happened will only make Syria's role more effective and influential in events in the region."

The US and Israel claim that Syria fosters terrorism. After Syria sought a UN resolution condemning Israel, American spokesmen said Syria was "on the wrong side in the war on terror". Israel accuses Mr Assad of allowing exiled Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders to continue orchestrating anti-Israel operations from Damascus.