Sharon calls on Britain to back militant arrests

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, has asked the British Government to put pressure on the Palestinian authorities to arrest known militants and dismantle their groupings as an urgent precondition for progress towards Middle East peace, Israeli diplomatic sources say.

Mr Sharon made his case at a private dinner with Tony Blair at Downing Street and in further meetings in London yesterday. He also met the Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, and London-based Jewish groups.

Mr Sharon's political shopping list in London was topped by his request to the British Government to break ties with Yasser Arafat, President of the Palestinian Authority, whom he described as "a factor undermining the Palestinian government and peace process", but this was rejected at the outset by the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw.

Mr Sharon's other focus was on security issues. The sources said he urged Britain to exert pressure on Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Prime Minister, "to act against terrorist organisations, dismantle them and collect their weapons".

"We made it very clear," the sources continued, "that if the Palestinians do not take steps against the militants, they won't get anything."

The sources said Mr Sharon suggested ways in which the Europeans could help schools, hospitals and social organisations in the West Bank and Gaza, where the main organiser and funder of such services was increasingly the social and political wing of Hamas, the militant group that has admitted responsibility for bombings in Israel. European support for social projects could undermine the influence of Hamas, the sources said.

The British Government's response appears to have been non-committal on Mr Sharon's specific requests, although at least some of the ill-feeling that has dogged relations over the past year was dispelled. A Downing Street spokesman said the Blair-Sharon talks had been "warm and constructive", with both sides restating their commitment to the peace process now enshrined in the so-called road-map.

Israeli diplomatic sources said British officials had "listened carefully" and ways had been established for maintaining contacts in the future.