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Sharon tours Europe to seek support for policies

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BERLIN — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met Germany's president Thursday as part of a trip to seek support from European powers for his government's policy toward the Palestinians.

On his first official visit to Germany since taking office, Sharon was received under heavy security by President Johannes Rau at the stately Bellevue Palace in Berlin.

Sharon also planned talks with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer before heading to Paris later in the day. In Berlin, Sharon and Schroeder were to lay wreaths at a memorial to Jews deported from the German capital by the Nazis.

Sharon also was to meet Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel in Berlin. Sharon had canceled a planned stop in Brussels, apparently because of a war crimes investigation there related to an attack on two Palestinian refugee camps during his tenure as Israeli defense minister in 1982.

Although Germany is Israel's closest ally in Europe, it is also a leading aid donor to the Palestinians. Like other European governments, Berlin has openly criticized Israeli policies — such as its refusal to declare a complete stop to the building of Jewish settlements on disputed land.

In a German newspaper interview, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres reiterated his government's opposition to Arab calls for international observers to monitor the shaky cease-fire in the Middle East.

"The West Bank and Gaza are observed by 200 television cameras from across the world," Peres told the Die Zeit weekly, published Thursday. "An observer with a TV camera is more effective that one with a gun."

Sharon had originally planned his trip for last month, but he postponed it after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 20 people, most of them Israeli teen-agers outside a Tel Aviv disco.

The bombing sparked a peace mission by Fischer, who was on a Middle East trip at the time. Germany has been increasingly active in Middle East diplomacy but insists it will not mediate between Israelis and Palestinians.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is expected to visit Berlin soon. Negotiations between Israel and Syria broke down in January 2000, when Israel wouldn't guarantee its withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which it seized in the 1967 Middle East war. Syria has since accused Israel of wanting war.

Germany has said it considers the so-called Mitchell report on ways to end months of violence a good basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The inquiry commission led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell called this month for an end to violence and for a series of confidence-building measures, including a freeze on building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

In an interview Thursday in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said that in support of the plan, he had ordered action be taken against the people responsible for the latest raids and grenade fire. He said there had been several arrests, but did not give details.