Sharon issues covert threat to Arafat's life

JERUSALEM, APRIL 24. Ariel Sharon issued an ominous warning last night that Yasser Arafat could be the next Palestinian leader to fall under Israel's line of fire, when he reneged on a promise not to harm his old adversary.

In dramatic remarks certain to aggravate regional hysteria over Israel's targeted killings of Palestinian militant leaders, the Israeli Prime Minister said he had told the U.S. President, George W Bush, that he was no longer prepared to exempt Mr. Arafat from physical harm.

``I told the President the following: In our first meeting about three years ago, I accepted your request not to harm Arafat physically. I told him I understand the problems surrounding the situation, but I am released from that pledge.''

Mr. Sharon declined to elaborate and would not say how Mr. Bush responded. Last night, officials in the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair's office responded with surprise to the announcement, and said they had no further comment.

But the remarks amounted to the strongest signal yet that Israel could follow up its recent assassinations in Gaza with the decapitation of the Palestinian leadership. Mr. Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, has been confined by Israeli security forces to his headquarters in Ramallah for two years.

Palestinians called on Mr. Bush to explain how he had responded to Mr. Sharon's declaration. The State Department said only that it stood by its opposition to the killing of Mr. Arafat.

Following last week's talks in Washington, Mr. Bush detailed how he supports Israel's unilateral disengagement plan, to the dismay of the Palestinian side, but has made no mention of Mr. Arafat.

Last year, Mr. Sharon's cabinet voted to ``remove'' Mr. Arafat as an ``obstacle to peace'' at a time of the Israeli Prime Minister's choosing.

Some Cabinet Ministers said that assassination would be the means, but it was never overtly endorsed by Mr. Sharon as the international community, including Washington, expressed displeasure.

But after recent strikes that killed Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi, Israel has widened the net and indicated that it would go after Hamas leaders abroad.

Its targeted killings have already included members of Mr. Arafat's organisation Fatah, which includes the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, responsible for many of the suicide bombings against Israel.

Palestinian officials have expressed concern that Israel might attack Mr. Arafat. Last night, officials condemned what they called Mr. Sharon's ``dangerous statements''.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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