Arafat wants international protection

Arab leaders carried on with a summit in Tunis on Saturday despite a walkout by Libya's Muammar al-Qadhafi.

    Arafat has been confined to Ram Allah for two years

    The Arab League summit is now focussing on how to contain regional

    violence and draft

    political reforms urged by Washington


    Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat also appealed to the gathered

    Arab leaders or their representatives for international protection

    for his people, speaking via a satellite link-up from his battered

    West Bank headquarters.

    The rescheduled two-day summit, delayed for eight weeks after

    Tunisia abruptly cancelled it amid a row over reform proposals,

    opened amid popular Arab rage over US military actions in Iraq and

    deadly Israeli military raids in the Gaza Strip.

    "I proclaim here before you and the world our commitment to a

    peace of the brave," Arafat said from Ram Allah, where Israeli forces

    have kept him under virtual house arrest for two years.

    International protection

    Wearing his trademark black and white checkered headdress, he

    urged Arabs to lobby for an international force to protect his

    people and a revival of Palestinian negotiations with Israel based

    on the internationally drafted but floundering peace plan known as

    the roadmap.

    "Voices call for getting rid of the Arab League or breaking it

    up as if it were the cause of all the ills of the Arab nation, which

    is false"

    Amr Musa,
    Arab League secretary-general

    Past appeals for an international force for the Middle East have

    fallen on deaf ears amid Israeli opposition.

    More than 40 Palestinians have been killed this week in Israeli

    operations in the Gaza Strip, despite a proposal by Prime Minister

    Ariel Sharon to unilaterally withdraw from the territory.

    The proposal has sparked fears among Arabs that Sharon will impose a

    disadvantageous settlement on the Palestinians, who want a complete

    Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and east

    Jerusalem, occupied since the 1967 Middle East war.

    As he opened the gathering at a flag-bedecked conference centre

    in Tunisia's seaside capital on the Mediterranean, Tunisian

    President Zain al-Abidin bin Ali held a minute's silence for

    Palestinians killed in the recent Israeli raids.

    Summit resolutions

    Bin Ali also denounced terrorism, vowed Arabs would pursue

    political and economic reform at their own pace and in harmony with

    tradition, and reiterated the need for the US-led occupation to

    ensure Iraq remains whole and recovers its sovereignty.

    The leaders are expected to approve a draft enshrining these

    ideas on Iraq - but also denounce the abuse by US guards of

    prisoners at Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison and demand those

    responsible be punished.

    A senior Arab official said the summit was heading towards taking

    a "moderate" stand and would adopt a resolution that "condemns

    military operations against Palestinian civilians and Palestinian

    leaders, as well as operations against civilians, without


    Al-Qadhafi wanted to discuss a
    united Palestinian-Israeli state

    That would be a first for an Arab summit and would underscore a

    desire to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process, left crippled by

    more than three years of violence, on the basis of trading land

    occupied by Israel in 1967 for peace.

    Critics charge that Arab governments are so weak they are at the

    mercy of the hardline policies of US President George Bush and

    his main regional ally Israel.

    Al-Qadhafi walkout

    Al-Qadhafi, who had kept people guessing whether he would show up

    for the summit until the last minute, walked out during the opening

    speeches before announcing he was bolting the summit and renewing

    his call to have Libya withdraw from the 22-member Arab League.

    The flamboyant Libyan leader said he disagreed with the summit

    agenda, without being more specific.

    He hinted at his previous gripes that the League was powerless to

    defend the Palestinians and Iraq. He pointed out that Iraq's

    deposed President Saddam Hussein was in US military custody and

    Arafat was confined to Ram Allah.

    An Arab delegate also said al-Qadhafi may have been upset by veiled

    criticism from Arab League chief Amr Musa.

    "Voices call for getting rid of the Arab League or breaking it

    up as if it were the cause of all the ills of the Arab nation, which

    is false," Musa said in his speech.

    US pressure

    The Arab League has been called
    a 'talking shop'

    The Arab League "is currently going through a difficult time and

    faces major challenges," Musa said. "Don't let it collapse."

    Delegates say in return for trying to defuse regional

    tensions, Arab leaders will be given more say in a revised American

    document on regional reform to be presented to the 10 June summit of

    the Group of Eight major industrialised nations and Russia.

    The Arabs insist change must come from within and reject

    any foreign interference. But analysts say authoritarian governments

    fear democratic reforms could eventually cost them their holds on


    The United States sees Arab reforms as crucial for removing some

    of the frustrations it believes have led to anti-American "terror"




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