UK 'wardens' in new Bush deal to end Arafat siege

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Britain was instrumental in securing an agreement yesterday for lifting the Israeli siege of Yasser Arafat's office, under which six Palestinian militants wanted by Israel will be guarded by US and British jailers.

The Israeli government and the Palestinians agreed to accept the proposal put to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, by George Bush on Saturday, allowing Mr Arafat to leave his Ramallah headquarters, which have been surrounded by Israeli tanks for the past month.

The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who discussed the plan with Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, over the weekend, last night welcomed the move as a "significant first step away from violence and confrontation".

"We have been pushing forward this proposal for some time," he said in a statement.

The US plan appears to build on a British proposal to provide monitors to reassure the Israelis that suspects held by Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority would not be let out.

Under the plan, four members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine accused of assassinating Israel's Tourism Minister last year ­ and found guilty in a lightning hearing by one of Yasser Arafat's military courts ­ would be held in a Palestinian prison with US and British guards. The two other militants have not been tried by any court. Israel has been demanding their extradition. Israel is hoping the US will respond by supporting its demands for changes to a UN fact-finding mission to Jenin refugee camp, which it regards with deep suspicion.

President George Bush said the agreement marked a "hopeful day" in the crisis and thanked Britain for its role. Mr Bush said that Mr Arafat was "free to move around and free to leave". He insisted, however, that the Palestinian leader should act at once to "renounce, to detect and to act to stop terrorist killings".

Mr Straw said that experts were travelling to the region today to discuss the arrangements for the supervisory wardens.