Palestinians protest Arafat exclusion


GAZA, May 11 (UPI) -- Residents of the twin West Bank cities of Ramallah and al-Beereh went on a commercial strike Sunday to protest against the U.S. government's exclusion of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from ongoing peace talks and meetings with Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The strike was called by Fatah, an organization that was founded by Arafat.


"Fatah strongly denounces sidelining Arafat who is the legitimate elected leader of the Palestinians," Hussein Al-Sheikh, a representative of the group in Ramallah, told United Press International.

Powell, who is currently in the region to present Washington's "road map" for peace, met with Israeli leader Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Abbas, known as Abu Mazen.

Washington has refused to negotiate with Arafat, saying he impedes the peace process.

"Powell's refusal to meet Arafat shows the U.S. administration's bias to Israel and proves that they are trying to cover up the Israeli crimes carried out daily against Palestinian citizens by delivering the road map," al-Sheikh said.

Powell met with Abu Mazen in Jericho instead of Arafat's presidential compound, Al Muqataa, in Ramallah.

Palestinian Authority officials said the U.S. administration had requested the change in venue, but a PA official speaking on condition of anonymity said the place was changed on Abu Mazen' request.


Residents in Ramallah said the Israeli army established a number of military checkpoints around Arafat's compound where he has been surrounded for more than a year.

Eyewitnesses said the army closed all nearby roads, mandated an identity card check and arrested two Palestinians.

Al-Sheikh called the Israeli actions in Ramallah "provocative."

Residents also said Israeli military jeeps and soldiers were deployed near the Palestinian Authority Information Ministry in downtown Ramallah.

Abu Mazen, who was recently elected the Palestinian Authority's first prime minister, has announced his intention to crack down on armed groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

But Hamas leaders warned Sunday they would resist any move to disarm them.

"All the statements made by Abu Mazen indicate he is not going to disarm any Palestinian group," Hamas spokesman Abdel Aziz Ranteessi told UPI in Gaza. "He is unable to disarm us, and nobody will accept disarming any of the armed Palestinian groups."

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