Powell calls for Middle East monitors

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The Independent Online

Colin Powell, the American Secretary of State, said yesterday outside observers should monitor the ceasefire in the Middle East – an apparent change in US policy and a proposal that will anger Israel.

Mr Powell, on a visit to the Middle East where he met the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, said he also wanted to see the Israelis and Palestinians start implementing confidence-building measures within weeks.

But in an incident that showed just how fragile is the current ceasefire, a Jewish settler was shot and killed by Palestinian gunmen hours before Mr Powell spoke. A second Israeli woman was injured in another incident.

Speaking of the urgent need to introduce the confidence-building measures, America's most senior diplomat said: "We have to do it promptly, but not so fast as to ignore the reality of the situation. As we start out with confidence-building measures, there will be a need for monitors."

The proposal for outside monitors has long been one of the demands of the Palestinians. As such, Mr Powell's comments are likely to anger Israel, which has balked at the idea of widespread outside involvement. The recent report by the former senator George Mitchell, who led a fact-finding team to the region, also failed to recommend outside observers.

Mr Powell's endorsement of an observer force is a reversal for the Bush administration, which has helped Israel defeat Palestinian attempts at the United Nations to win Security Council approval for the idea.

However, the President's spokesman said in Washington that America was not simply embracing Palestinian demands. Ari Fleischer quoted Mr Powell as saying: "There is a clear understanding of the need for some kind of monitoring observer function performed by some group."

In Ramallah, a Palestinian official said Mr Powell had asked Mr Arafat to bring about a week-long ceasefire so that other Mitchell recommendations could be introduced. "Arafat agreed," said the official. Later at a joint press conference with Mr Powell, Mr Sharon said: "If there is total quiet we will go to the next phase – the confidence- building measures, which I will not detail at present."

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