Sharon preaches war as Cheney arrives for talks

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The Vice-President of the United States, Dick Cheney, arrived in Jerusalem yesterday to find that Ariel Sharon is pressing on relentlessly with his drive to equate Israel's latest military offensive against Palestinians in the occupied territories with the American-led "war on terror".

The Israeli Prime Minister told his guest: "Terrorism is terrorism is terrorism, anywhere in the world." Mr Cheney had arrived to lend weight to American efforts to broker a truce after the conflict claimed more than 150 lives in a fortnight.

"There is no 'good terrorism' or 'bad terrorism'," Mr Sharon told Mr Cheney shortly after he touched down for a one-day visit. It is his 10th stop on an 11- nation Middle East tour to rally support for Washington's next moves in its campaign, especially against Iraq.

"Real or imagined injustice or deprivation cannot serve as an excuse for the murder of innocent civilians," Mr Sharon said. "There is no neutrality in this struggle." He said he was ready to make peace but there could be "no compromise" on the security of Israeli civilians.

But, troops and tanks started to pull out of the West Bank town of Bethlehem, neighbouring Beit Jalla and El-Khader early today as the two sides edged towards a truce.

Mr Sharon's remarks contrasted strikingly with the contents of a letter written to him last week by Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, which was leaked yesterday.Israel's conduct ­ involving the largest military offensive since its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, was cast in a different light.

Mr Annan likened Israel's tactics to "an all-out conventional war" and condemned the Israeli army for killing civilians and attacking medical officials. "Israel is fully entitled to defend itself against terror," Mr Annan wrote. "But this right does not discharge it of its obligation to respect the fundamental principles and rules of international law."

In unusually blunt language, he stated: "Judging from the means and methods employed by the Israel Defence Force ­ F-16 fighter-bombers, helicopter and naval gunships, missiles and bombs of heavy tonnage ­ the fighting has come to resemble all-out conventional warfare."

Specifically, Mr Annan pointed to the killing and injuring of civilians and the firing at hospitals and schools; in one case the fatal shooting of a UN guard who was escorting a wounded man to a hospital. All these actions violated the principle of protection of civilians, he said.

Mr Annan, who is on record as having expressed sympathy before for Israel over its isolation at the UN, said hundreds of innocent civilians had been killed and many buildings and homes destroyed. Tanks went into densely populated refugee camps and heavy explosives were dropped close to Palestinian schools, including one run by the United Nations for blind Palestinian children.

He called "unfounded and unsubstantiated" statements by Israeli spokesmen that ambulances might have been used to smuggle Palestinian militants and weapons. "These allegations can only result in further danger to medical workers and further impede their vital mission."

Government sources in Israel said an army pullout from the areas seized in a two-week offensive had been agreed during meetings between security officials from both sides hosted by the US envoy General Anthony Zinni. But the position remained precarious, amid further signs that Palestinian militants would continue to fight. The Israeli army said Palestinians fired two Kassam II rockets from Gaza into Israel last night. No one was injured.

An army spokesman said troops shot dead an armed Palestinian near a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip after he ignored calls to stop. Military sources said there were suspicions that the Palestinian was wearing an explosives belt.

Mr Cheney was met by General Zinni, who arrived last week to usher both sides towards a truce, starting with a security co-operation plan set out last year by George Tenet, director of the CIA. Even before the Vice-President touched down, there were signs that his mission was increasing the impression, universally held among Arabs, that the US is invariably biased towards Israel.

There were rumblings of discontent from Palestinian officials at the apparent absence of a meeting between Yasser Arafat and Mr Cheney. Yasser Abed Rabbo, the information minister, said no Palestinian officials would agree to meet Mr Cheney until he met Mr Arafat.

¿ The Saudis would present their peace plan to next week's Arab summit even if Israel does not let Mr Arafat attend, the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Maher, said yesterday.