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Palestinian Envoy Defends Arafat

January 11, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ The top Palestinian official in the United States dismissed as ``absurd″ Israel’s accusation that Yasser Arafat was directly involved in a foiled plot to smuggle arms to the Palestinians.

Hassan Abdel Rahman, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s chief representative, said Friday, ``It’s absurd to think Yasser Arafat would be personally involved, or anyone close to Arafat, even.″

In an interview, Rahman also said the Palestinians did not take the Israeli version of the incident at face value and ``we had hoped the Israelis or the Americans would share the information that they have with us.″

``We are ready to cooperate in the investigations and conduct our own investigation in this matter,″ Rahman said.

Israel intercepted the ship-borne weapons in the Red Sea on Jan. 3 and accused the Palestinian Authority of seeking to smuggle the rockets, mortar, explosives and other arms to the Palestinians

After Israeli intelligence officials briefed the Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, ``The information we are receiving and developing on our own makes it clear that there are linkages to the Palestinian Authority.″

Unlike Israel, he did not link Arafat to the operation. Powell did not accept Arafat’s disavowal, either, and insisted on an explanation and arrests.

On Thursday, Ron Schlicher, the U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem, met with Arafat.

``He understood the seriousness that we attach to it, and did say that he was looking into it, and would get us more information,″ State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said of Arafat’s meeting with the American diplomat.

In the meantime, Boucher said the two sides could take practical steps to reduce tensions and move toward peacemaking.

Questioning Israel’s account, Rahman said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel ``has his own agenda and has been looking for a pretext. If he wants to use one, he can always find one.″

Still, the Palestinian official said, ``We hope that this will not affect the effort we have been carrying on to bring the situation under control and that the U.S. administration will continue also its efforts.″

Also on Friday, a top State Department official began a seven-nation trip to the Persian Gulf as the Bush administration weighed whether to expand its use of force against terrorism in Afghanistan to other nations.

William Burns, the assistant secretary for the Near East, began in Kuwait and plans to travel to Bahrain on Saturday, Qatar on Sunday, Oman on Monday, the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and Yemen on Thursday.

In Yemen, an Arab country at the Gulf of Aden, special forces trained with U.S. help have battled armed tribesmen in an attempt to capture suspected members of Osama bin Laden’s terrorism network hiding in remote areas.

At a private meeting in late November at the White House, President Bush asked President Ali Abdullah Saleh to turn Yemen’s cooperation on terrorism ``to results.″

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