- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

Bandar's new mission

Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan is on a special diplomatic mission to persuade the United States to get Israel to lift the siege on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The ambassador is acting under instructions from Crown Prince Abdullah, the power behind the throne of the oil-rich desert kingdom, according to a report yesterday in the Saudi newspaper al Watan.

Western news agency reports from the region quoted the Arab-language newspaper as saying, "The aim is to lift the siege on the Palestinian leadership and to urge the parties to implement the recommendations of the Mitchell commission and the Tenet understandings and to resume negotiations."

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell and CIA Director George J. Tenet offered separate proposals last year designed to end Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

Israel has kept Mr. Arafat under virtual house arrest for two months because he ignored Israeli demands for the arrest of the terrorists who killed Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavan Zeevi on Oct. 17. Mr. Arafat arrested three suspects yesterday in connection with the attack.

Prince Abdullah last week offered to work for Israeli diplomatic recognition throughout the Arab world if Israel gives up the Arab land occupied after the 1967 war.

Meeting Arroyo

The U.S. ambassador to the Philippines yesterday presented his credentials to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and pledged U.S. assistance in the Philippines' fight against terrorism.

Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone Jr. later told reporters in Manila that his top priority is to win the release of two American missionaries held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf group, linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.

Martin and Gracia Burnham from Wichita, Kan., and Filipina nurse Deborah Yap are being held on the island of Basilan, where U.S. Special Forces are helping train Philippine soldiers.

"It is important that all three are released immediately, unconditionally and unharmed," he said.

Mr. Ricciardone said he expressed his commitment to work closely with the Philippine government in his first meeting with Mrs. Arroyo.

"We're very concerned about the reach of terrorism globally, and, of course, we're paying particular attention to its effects here," he said.

Russian spokesman

The Russian Embassy has appointed a new spokesman to replace Yuriy Zubarev, who is returning to Moscow today.

The new press secretary is Yevgeniy Ahorishko.

Mr. Zubarev, who was in Washington for four years, is taking a foreign policy position in the Foreign Ministry.

Karimov coming

Uzbek President Islam Karimov, a vital U.S. ally in the war in Afghanistan, will visit President Bush at the White House on March 12.

"The presidents' discussion will reflect the new relationship that is evolving between the United States and Uzbekistan," the White House said yesterday in announcing the visit.

"The countries' unprecedented level of cooperation first became evident in the fight against terrorists in Afghanistan.

"The United States looks forward to deepening cooperation not only on security matters, but also on human rights and political and economic reform, all of which are essential elements of the robust and lasting relationship we hope to build with Uzbekistan and its people."

Uzbekistan allowed U.S. troops to use its airstrips near the border with Afghanistan, winning high praise from the Bush administration for its cooperation.

However, the United States has also criticized Uzbekistan for restricting the religious freedom of Muslims. Although it is an Islamic country, the government allows its citizens to pray only in officially sanctioned mosques.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says the Uzbek government "substantially violates the religious freedom of its people."

The commission, in a recent report, also urged the Bush administration to withhold financial assistance until Uzbekistan guarantees religious rights.

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