UN struggles to salvage mission to enter Jenin

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The United Nations Security Council convened in emergency session last night in an attempt to salvage plans to send a fact-finding mission to the devastated refugee camp in Jenin in the face of hardening Israeli opposition.

The unusual Sunday evening meeting was called after it became clear that Israel was once again seeking at least to delay the arrival of the UN's eight-member mission at Jenin, if not scupper it altogether. "Clearly, they have something to hide," one Western diplomat concluded.

Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, faces a test of his credibility as Israel continues to block a mission it had originally agreed to receive. Mr Annan, who negotiated with Israeli officials for two days last week, had already agreed to postpone its departure twice.

Israel's latest manoeuvre came after a cabinet meeting yesterday morning. The Communications minister, Reuven Rivlin, told reporters that the UN had gone back on its agreements with Israel over the team, and so it would not be allowed to arrive.

"This awful UN committee is out to get us and is likely to smear Israel and to force us to do things which Israel is not prepared even to hear about, such as interrogating soldiers and officers who took part," Mr Rivlin said. "No country would agree to such a thing."

Israeli officials said that it had only withdrawn co-operation with the fact-finders "in the current circumstances", and intended to go on negotiating over the issue. The stance puts Israel at loggerheads with the Security Council, which mandated the mission in a resolution 10 days ago. Last night's Security Council meeting was set to be stormy.

Diplomats expected Syria, holder of a rotating seat on the Council, to press for a new resolution on behalf of Arab governments demanding that Israel comply with the UN. The Palestinian former peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said that Israel was "trying to renegotiate a UN Security Council resolution," and was attempting a cover-up.

It is understood that, behind the scenes, Israel has taken a tough line, demanding a veto of the team's movements, the right to have officials present in meetings with all non-Palestinian officials, and a bar on the team outlining any conclusions in its final report on the Jenin affair.

Mr Annan had no statement last night but his spokesman said he had been conferring by telephone with the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Israel detailed its latest objections to the fact-minding mission in a letter delivered to the UN Secretary General early yesterday morning.

Diplomats said Israel could point to its agreement yesterday with an Anglo-American plan to allow Yasser Arafat out of Ramallah to pressure the UN for concessions in the terms of reference for the Jenin mission. It remains to be seen whether the US would be more accepting of Israel's position after the Arafat deal. * Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is likely to visit the US the week after next for talks with President Bush, the White House has announced.