Straw tells Arafat: Stop Middle East violence

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Jack Straw issued an ultimatum to Yasser Arafat yesterday, saying he must either take immediate steps to crack down on Palestinian terrorists or admit that he no longer had the power to deliver.

In an interview with The Independent, the Foreign Secretary said the President of the Palestinian Authority must take the first steps to halt the wave of violence that has scuppered the tortuous Middle East peace process.

Mr Straw said: "It is our judgement that the key initial steps have to be taken by the Palestinian Authority. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist organisations have to be broken up, their operatives have to be locked up and they have to end the intifada."

He added: "Arafat is the democratically elected President of the Palestinian Authority. We have to work on the basis that until he countermands this, he has authority within the area. If he hasn't, then he should say so.

"People with a key role in the search for peace, like Shimon Peres, continue to believe Arafat has the potential to deliver. If he hasn't, then he should say so."

Although Mr Straw denied that he was adopting a more pro-Israeli line, he admitted that Britain's position had changed because of the suicide bombings in Israel by Palestinian militants.

"It is not a change of strategy. But circumstances have changed," he said. The Israeli government was under "unbelievable pressure" because of the bombings, he added.

"If there was an Omagh happening every weekend, then this would place any government under the most astounding pressure," he said. But he also said Israel should halt illegal incursions into Palestinian areas. Mr Straw's comments reflect growing impatience with Mr Arafat in London and Washington.

One government source said: "Straw has had so many conversations in which he agrees on what needs to be done, but then it is not done. Arafat must grasp that."

Mr Straw is said to feel let down by the Palestinians because he believes he and Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, have both gone out on a limb to put pressure on Israel. In September, the Foreign Secretary provoked a storm of Israeli protest when he called for a Palestinian state. "We can't put pressure on Israel if Arafat can't deliver," said one source.

In his interview with The Independent, Mr Straw predicted that Osama bin Laden, who the Government believes is still in Afghanistan, would be captured. He said: "My view is that sooner or later he will be found. It is impossible for a man on whom there is that focus and that bounty to escape for long."

The Foreign Secretary played down speculation that America would take military action against Iraq. He said: "The decisions which the Bush administration have made have been careful and thought through up to now. I have no reason to think that won't continue."

Mr Straw disclosed that Italy, Spain, Canada and Jordan would be among the first nations to provide troops for the British-led peace-keeping force in Afghanistan. But he admitted that France and Germany were unlikely to be in the first wave because "internal" issues still had to be resolved by their governments.

In a test of Mr Arafat's authority, hundreds of Palestinian police surrounded the hide-out of a fugitive militant leader yesterday but failed to arrest him when his supporters opened fire. Seven people were reported to be wounded.