Powell to increase pressure on Sharon as European sanctions move closer

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The Independent Online

International pressure on Israel's premier, Ariel Sharon, increased sharply yesterday as America, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations issued a call for an "immediate" end to the Israeli offensive in Palestinian territory.

The message, which will be delivered in person by Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, in the Middle East tomorrow, marks a new effort by the leading international players to co-ordinate their bid to influence Israeli policy. Meanwhile there is mounting pressure inside the EU for a suspension of a trade and co-operation agreement with Israel in protest at the continuing military offensive.

On Monday EU foreign ministers will debate whether to take the first step in this direction by convening an early meeting of the EU-Israel association council. Several countries, notably Britain and Germany, have reservations about taking economic measures against Israel.

In a strongly worded resolution, the European Parliament yesterday called on the EU to "suspend immediately" the agreement. Israel, which sends almost a third of its exports to EU countries, enjoys preferential trade terms under the pact. The Strasbourg assembly's vote is not binding, but it puts political pressure on EU governments.

The call for an end to the Israeli offensive coincided with the harshest condemnation of Israel to date from Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, who said he was "appalled" by the dire humanitarian suffering caused by the offensive. Mr Annan said the crackdown was causing a "mounting humanitarian and human rights crisis", adding that this was unacceptable from a country "that lays claim to democracy".

Yesterday's declaration followed a meeting of the so-called quartet of ministers and officials from the EU, the US, the UN and Russia, which met in Madrid ahead of General Powell's Middle East tour. While the statement condemned Palestinian suicide bombings and called on Yasser Arafat to do all he could to stop them, it underlined the international consensus against the actions of Mr Sharon's government. The declaration called for an "immediate, meaningful ceasefire and an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities".

General Powell said the US might deploy monitors, once the position had been stabilised, and confirmed he wanted to meet Mr Arafat this weekend.

EU diplomats argue that a ceasefire should lead to a resumption of the political process. Two new ideas are on the table: the Saudi initiative, which promised recognition of the state of Israel, and Germany's blueprint, which is designed to lead to the peaceful coexistence of Israel and its Arab neighbours.

The German plan, which will be discussed by EU ministers on Monday, foresees a ceasefire and withdrawal of Israeli troops, followed by an early declaration of a Palestinian state, an end to Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas and phased talks on Israel's borders and the status of Jerusalem. The European Commission said there was "coherence" between the statement by the "quartet" yesterday and the German plan.

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