- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 4, 2001

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell began an eight-day, 10-nation tour of Europe and Central Asia yesterday, but the trip's main theme of rebuilding Afghanistan is likely to be overshadowed by the escalating violence in the Middle East.

"The secretary will be consulting with coalition partners about the war on terrorism. His discussions will encompass the immediate and long-term challenges of rebuilding a post-Taliban Afghanistan," the State Department said.

It said Mr. Powell whose trip has been in the works for weeks, with new stops being added until late Friday never considered canceling his plans.

Despite a new security crisis in the Middle East, which over the weekend saw some of the worst bloodshed in years, he is not scheduled to visit the region.

"The secretary will be in regular contact with his team back here and with his team in the field, with the president, as necessary, and with any foreign leaders that he needs to be in touch with," State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker told reporters.

Israel launched air strikes on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's helicopter compound in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank city of Jenin yesterday in retaliation for a devastating wave of suicide bombings over the weekend, which killed more than a score and wounded more than 200.

The surge of violence threatened to wreck a U.S. peace drive intended to help bolster Arab support for the U.S.-led anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan, and raised fears that the Middle East conflict could spiral out of control.

Mr. Powell is expected to meet with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres today in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, at the annual gathering of the 55-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

"We expect the participants there to issue a statement addressing a number of issues that OSCE has been involved with, as well as their action plans to combat global terrorism," Mr. Reeker said.

At last year's OSCE meeting, Russia objected to tough language in the final document on its campaign against separatists in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, which Moscow says has links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

In Bucharest, Mr. Powell is also scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, whom he will see twice more during his trip, at the NATO headquarters in Brussels and in Moscow. There, he will also confer with President Vladimir Putin.

After addressing the OSCE meeting, Mr. Powell will visit Turkey, the secular Muslim state whose support was crucial in getting out the U.S. message that Washington is at war with terrorism, not Islam.

Mr. Powell will then swing through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the former Soviet republics in Central Asia that have become three of the United States' new friends in the war on terrorism because of their proximity to Afghanistan.

During this part of his trip, Mr. Powell intends to show that the new U.S. engagement is a "long-term warm embrace" and not just short-term expediency, one State Department official said.

"The secretary will also continue the important work of recasting U.S. relationships with key countries in the region, and press forward with efforts to secure democracy and human rights," the State Department said.

On the last leg of his tour, Mr. Powell will visit Germany, France and Britain before returning to Washington next Tuesday.

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