Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said for the first time that ceasefire talks with the Palestinians would have to take place "under fire", as the conflict with the Palestinians marked its deadliest day since 1987.
Sharon's U-turn came after Israel sent its tanks and helicopters into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, resulting in heavy clashes with gunmen and scenes of carnage that left at least 44 dead.
Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggested Friday that he was dropping his insistence on a week of calm before the two sides begin implementing a truce. Sharon said that negotiations for a cease-fire would be held while the conflict continues. "Negotiations to stop the shooting will be held under fire," Sharon told Channel Two Television.
Sharon also informed U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell of his decision during a phone conversation earlier in the day.
The decision follows a new U.S. intiative which proposes that the two sides start to implement the Tenet plan immediately, without waiting for a drop in the violence, with the goal of then moving on to the Mitchell Report's plan for resuming negotiations. "I thought we could reach a period of respite before a ceasefire," Sharon said. "But this is a war situation we are experiencing."
However, Arafat's top advisor, Nabil Adu Rudeina, dismissed the surprise declaration from Sharon as having "no value" and said the Israelis would have to stop their raids into Palestinian lands.
"Sharon must realize that he cannot obtain an end to the violence with a military solution. His declaration on negotiations of a truce 'under fire' has no value, he must stop his massacres and aggression against the Palestinian people," he told AFP.
Abu Rudeina earlier said that Arafat had called for immediate US intervention to "stop the massacres" taking place in the territories, in a phone conversation with US Secretary of State Colin Powell.
For his part, Arafat told reporters after receiving Palestinian mourners at his Ramallah headquarters on Friday that "the Israeli government and the Israeli army are continuing their massacres against our defenseless people."
"Ariel Sharon and the Israeli government are destroying the peace of the brave that I had reached with my partner late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin," Arafat said. "This situation would be reflected on the whole world," he commented.
In Washington, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher issued a stinging critique that, "Right now, both sides should think through the consequences of the policies they're following."
"Both parties need to take a hard look at what they're doing now and take the necessary steps so that they can implement" existing plans to forge a ceasefire and bring about a resumption of a political dialogue, he said.
Boucher said Arafat bore a special responsibility and had to take further steps to curtail anti-Israel attacks, but made clear that Sharon also had to act as well to restrain military responses.
Ten armed Palestinians in the Tulkarem refugee camp, on the outskirts of the West Bank city, laid down their weapons Friday afternoon and gave themselves up to Israeli troops, accotding to Israeli sources.
The Palestinians were among those surrounded by Israeli troops in a central area of the camp who had engaged in fierce gunbattles with the soldiers since the troops stormed into the camp two days earlier.
According to an agreement reached between the Palestinian Authority and the army, the gunmen in the refugee camp were allowed to put down their weapons and surrender to Israeli troops without fear of injury. Some 250 men from the camp followed instructions announced on loudspeakers for every male between the ages of 15 and 50 to leave the camp unarmed.
All of the men who left the camp underwent a security check carried out by Shin Bet (Israel’s Security Service), in order to verify that they were not on a list of suspects wanted by Israel. Among them were the 10 men, the majority of them PA security personnel.
Judging by the small number of men who were involved in the fighting who gave themselves up, it is unclear how many of the armed men in the camp actually agreed to surrender. According to media reports, the armed Palestinians still inside the camp include fighters who were under the command of Raed Karmi, a senior Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades activist assassinated by Israel earlier this year.
Palestinian sources added that a number of senior Palestinian activists wanted by Israel managed to escape from the camp during the siege.
Israeli helicopters fired four missiles Friday evening at Palestinian targets close to the West Bank city of Hebron. Three struck Palestinian security targets and the fourth hit at an electricity supply building that plunged the city into darkness, witnesses said.
They said that two of the missiles hit the Palestinian intelligence headquarters in the village of Yata, a third struck police headquarters and the fourth a building in the town of Halhoul that supplies electrical power to Hebron.
Israeli helicopter gunships also struck a Palestinian National Security command in the Gaza Strip village of Dir al-Balah on Friday evening.
An Israeli tank shell killed an activist from Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction in Bethlehem on Friday and critically wounded two others, Fatah officials said.
Meanwhile, Syria on Saturday sharply criticized what it saw as U.S. inaction in the Mideast conflict and the absence of almost any role to stop bloodshed in the Palestinian territories, predicting the mission of U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni will be doomed to failure.
Al-Thawra newspaper said Zinni's mission "does not bode well, especially as the American stand does not inspire a near return to peace process requirements which are destroyed by the genocide currently perpetrated by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon."
Al-Thawra deplored what it saw as U.S. inaction, saying: "It's regrettable that the U.S. performance has not advanced... Zinni's mission is liable to fail, like previous missions, even before it starts."
Tishreen daily played down expectations that Zinni's mission in the region would help alleviate tension, "because the butcher (Sharon) believes that he has already got the U.S. green light to perpetrate his brutal massacres." (Albawba.com)
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