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Peres upbeat, but Arafat sees no thaw

SHARE Peres upbeat, but Arafat sees no thaw

JERUSALEM — The Palestinian leader and Israel's foreign minister shook hands publicly at a Lisbon conference on Saturday after meeting for the first time since February in hopes of narrowing a yawning gap over peace moves.

Israel's Shimon Peres, who had talks with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat over dinner on Friday, told Reuters Saturday: "I think it was a good occasion to exchange views informally in a rather agreeable atmosphere.

"One of the . . . greatest problems we are facing is an emotional breakdown, the fact that the parties have lost confidence," Peres said.

But Arafat later appeared to rule out a thaw in relations on his return to Gaza from Portugal, where he told reporters that he was "sorry to say that criminal activities still continue from the Israeli side, especially from the settlers protected by Israeli troops, as well as closure of our cities and villages."

Regional tensions remained high but, 17 days into a fragile cease-fire, violent incidents were relatively few.

Fighting on the Israel-Lebanon border on Friday and clashes at West Bank and Gaza flashpoints overnight took the shine off U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's three-day peace mission to the area last week. Lebanon and its political mentor Syria warned that any Israeli reprisals for a Hezbollah northern border attack on its troops would endanger the region's volatile security.Powell was seeking a way to end nine months of intercommunal bloodshed sparked by a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, in which about 600 people have been killed.

He persuaded the two sides on Thursday to agree to a seven-day period of complete ceasefire as a test of their commitment to press ahead with peace moves.

A source close to Friday's dinner meeting said Peres told Arafat that achieving seven straight days of calm would pave the way for a longer cooling-off period and set the peace plan in motion.

The plan, crafted by a panel headed by former U.S. senator George Mitchell, calls for a series of confidence-building measures, including an end to Jewish settlement construction on occupied Arab land, but Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has vowed it will continue to facilitate "natural growth."

Belgian court to hear complaint

The fiery ex-general faced a personal hurdle on Saturday after the Belgian Le Soir newspaper reported the Brussels Public Prosecutor's Office had ruled a complaint against Sharon accusing him of crimes against humanity was admissible in a Brussels court.

Le Soir said that a magistrate should now launch an investigation into events surrounding the killing of hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Israeli officials declined to comment.

A 1983 Israeli state inquiry found Sharon, then defence minister, indirectly responsible for the killings at Sabra and Shatila when the Israeli army allowed Israeli-backed Christian Phalangist militiamen to enter the camp.

The search was ostensibly for Palestinian gunmen, after the assassination of Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese president-elect. A complaint against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for alleged crimes against humanity was also ruled admissible in Belgium on Friday.

In Lisbon, Sharon's foreign minister Peres, trying to bridge peace chasms with Palestinians, told Reuters on Saturday the U.S. peace plan should be followed "without any reductions or additions or deviations."

"Any attempt to change will kill the plan and will kill the chance for peace," he said, adding the week-long test period was important to create the conditions for peace to take hold.

Ambiguity swirled over whether that period had yet begun.

Arafat said in Gaza after returning from Portugal that the seven-day countdown had started from Wednesday. On Friday, Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo declared the period "starts from today."

Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, had riposted that violence earlier in the day meant it had yet to begin.

Peres and Arafat, who shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin for earlier peace efforts, shook hands before addressing the meeting of the Socialist International, which groups labour and socialist parties.

Two weeks ago, Sharon vetoed a suggestion that Peres meet Arafat in the company of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The prime minister has frequently called Arafat a terrorist and has never shaken his hand.

In his speech, Arafat called for more European Union observers to be sent to Palestinian-ruled territories to help consolidate the ceasefire. He said three West Bank towns had been calm since observers had arrived there.

Israel opposes the large-scale dispatch of third-party observers to the region.

"Lift blockades" plea

Peres told delegates he believed the main stumbling block to a peace agreement was security, not occupation. "Give us security, you can have freedom," he said.

Arafat reportedly told Peres on Friday that his Palestinian Authority was trying to halt the violence, but its task would be made easier if Israel improved Palestinians' living conditions, for example by lifting blockades on their towns and villages.

In the West Bank on Saturday the Israeli army said its forces came under attack near Ramallah and in Hebron. There were no injuries. Around 40 Jewish settlers chanted anti-Arab slogans at the site of the killing of a woman settler on Thursday near the town of Jenin.

At least 466 Palestinians, 119 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed since the Palestinian revolt again Israeli occupation erupted in late September after peace talks stalled.