Powell arrives in Lebanon
JERUSALEM (CNN) – U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has arrived in Beirut, Lebanon, where he is due to hold talks over the recent escalation of Hezbollah guerrilla attacks on Israeli positions along the Israel-Lebanon border.
Powell plans to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut and then go to Damascus, Syria, before returning to Jerusalem.
For two weeks, suspected Hezbollah militants have targeted Israeli army outposts in the north, particularly in the disputed Shebaa Farms area on the edge of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
Israel has responded with heavy air attacks against suspected Hezbollah hideouts in southern Lebanon, threatening to open a new front in the Middle East conflict. (Full story)
Syria and Iran have backed Hezbollah for many years and in 2000 the group was instrumental in forcing Israel to withdraw its troops from southern Lebanon.
Powell spent Sunday in separate talks with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon but came away with no breakthroughs.
Powell said his meeting with Arafat was "useful and constructive." He said Arafat told him his top concern was the "humanitarian hardships the Palestinian people are facing" -- especially in Bethlehem and Jenin.
A senior State Department official said Powell "sent a very clear message" that suicide bombing attacks "had to end," adding the "continuing of the bombing was a major barrier to moving forward" on a peace process for the Middle East.
"We exchanged a variety of ideas and discussed steps of how we can move forward, and members of my staff will be speaking to his staff again," Powell said. Arafat agreed to have his aides meet Monday with U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni.
Senior Palestinian sources said Arafat spent the first 70 minutes of the three-hour meeting listing Palestinian claims of massacres and mass burials in Jenin.
He expressed disappointment that Powell viewed by helicopter the aftermath of the Jerusalem suicide bombing but had not sought to see what had happened to Palestinian civilians in Jenin and Nablus.
The meeting took place after Arafat and the Palestinian leadership issued a statement in Arabic Saturday condemning violence by both sides in the Middle East conflict. Powell originally postponed talks with Arafat after a suicide bomber killed six people Friday in Jerusalem. (Read statement)
In Sharon's meeting with Powell, the Israel prime minister renewed his proposal for an international conference on the Middle East, but a senior U.S. official downplayed the idea because Sharon would exclude Arafat.
Powell told Sharon the United States was prepared to lead such a conference that would include representatives from Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinians, according to Sharon spokesman Ra'anan Gissin.
"It's something that's been around," said a senior State Department official. But the Bush administration insists Sharon must deal with Arafat as the legitimately elected leader of the Palestinians.
"That's why we're saying we didn't particularly endorse Sharon's idea," the senior official said.
The official said Sharon has said in the past that Israel might attend a peace conference with "moderate" Arab leaders. But Sharon has made clear he does not consider Arafat to be such a leader.
Gissin said Arafat would have to take significant steps on the ground to prove that he supports a cease-fire before the Israeli government would consider opening talks with him.
"We don't think he can do it," Gissin said. "The Americans do so. We are happy to let them try. But we don't think Arafat can do it."
Sharon and Powell talked about "serious U.S. concerns on the humanitarian situation, particularly in Jenin," and Powell pressed for Israel to complete its withdrawal from the West Bank, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
Gissin said the Israeli leader gave no timetable for pulling Israeli troops out of Palestinian territory.
Israeli troops began their incursion into the West Bank on March 29, confining Arafat to his headquarters in Ramallah and sealing off Palestinian towns in an attempt to destroy what Israel calls "the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure."
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