Palestine leader 'will not take on militants'

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The newly appointed Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmed Qureia, said yesterday that he would not confront Palestinian militant groups with force, despite intense pressure from the US and Israel.

Mr Qureia was speaking the day after Israel launched an air strike near the Syrian capital, Damascus, on what it claimed was a militant training camp.

The Prime Minister was hurriedly installed by the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, who dispensed with formalities by declaring a state of emergency in the Palestinian Authority. That allowed him to appoint Mr Qureia and an eight-member emergency Cabinet without a decision from the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Analysts said Mr Arafat wanted to show the PA was serious about reining in the militants, amid fears Israel will carry out a threat to expel him.

Mr Qureia's message was uncompromising. He made it clear he was not prepared to go any further than his predecessor, Abu Mazen, who negotiated a unilateral ceasefire from the militants, but did not risk taking them on. "We will not confront, we will not go for a civil war," he said. "It's not in our interest. It's not in the interest of our people, and it's not in the interest of the peace process."

Israel bombed what it said was a training camp in Syria used by Islamic Jihad, after one of the group's militants carried out a suicide bombing in Haifa on Saturday that killed 19 people, including four children. But Syrian villagers near the site confirmed claims yesterday that although it had been a militant training camp, it fell into disuse many years ago and was deserted.

In Israel yesterday, the country was marking Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Shops were closed, television and radio stations stopped broadcasting and there were no cars on the streets.

Mr Qureia said he was committed to the road-map peace plan backed by President George Bush. "We are ready ... to sit with them [Israel] to discuss reaching a comprehensive ceasefire," he said. But he also said: "I will not listen to the Americans. I will listen to our national rights."

Abu Mazen was deeply unpopular on the Palestinian street, where he was seen as a stooge of Israel and the US. Mr Qureia appears keen to avoid making the same mistake.

¿ An Israeli soldier was killed and two injured in an exchange of fire over the Lebanese border, the Voice of Lebanon radio station reported yesterday. It said it was unclear whether Hezbollah guerrillas or Palestinian militants were responsible. Officials from Lebanon and Israel confirmed that shots had been fired.