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US 'taking sides' in Middle East peace process

THE UNITED STATES was accused by Palestinian leaders yesterday of 'taking sides' in the Middle East peace talks, as negotiators entered their third day of discussions in Washington.

In a concerted Palestinian effort to redress the balance of recent US favours towards Israel, both Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian spokeswoman, questioned the credibility of the US as honest brokers.

The focus of their concern is the recent decision by the US administration to pay out dollars 10bn ( pounds 5bn) in loan guarantees to Israel, in recognition of its positive moves towards peace.

Speaking at a United Nations conference in Geneva, Mr Arafat said that America's 'flagrant bias' in favour of Israel was a 'cause to abort' the talks. In an apparently contradictory remark, Mr Arafat went on to say that this did not mean the Palestinians should pull out.

Mr Arafat cannot take part directly in the peace talks because of the Israeli ban on contacts with the PLO, but his speech was clearly designed to fire a shot across the bows of the negotiators in Washington.

The Palestinian delegation in Washington is demanding to see the conditions of the release of the loan guarantees from the State Department. The Palestinians have consistently pointed out that the so-called settlement freeze, which prompted the US move, is partial, and that 11,000 Jewish homes are still being built.

The Palestinians were clearly delighted, however, that the Israelis have stopped using 'provocative' terms in the talks. In particular, Israeli negotiators are now talking about 'Palestinians' - not just 'Arabs' - and they do not refer to Judea and Samaria, when discussing the occupied West Bank.

Israel's negotiations with Syria continued in an unprecedently friendly manner yesterday, with one Israeli negotiator going as far as to say that the two sides were talking about 'what a state of peace between the two countries might actually mean'.

JERUSALEM - Two Palestinian gunmen, an Israeli officer and an Arab woman were killed in a gun battle between undercover forces and wanted Palestinians, according to the army, AP reports.

(Photograph omitted)