- The Washington Times - Friday, January 11, 2002

The United States yesterday for the first time openly linked the Palestinan Authority to an arms shipment seized by Israel last week but stopped short of directly implicating its leader, Yasser Arafat.

"The information we are receiving and developing on our own makes it clear that there are linkages to the Palestinian Authority," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters. "I have not seen information that yet links it directly to Chairman Arafat."

Another senior U.S. official said, however, that arranging and carrying out the operation involved "decisions and actions of such a nature that one would assume they would have to have been made at the highest level."

"From the information provided by the Israelis, we would strongly suspect that Arafat knew about the shipment," the official said. "There's a lot of smoke, but no smoking gun yet."

Washington earlier in the week indicated that Palestinians had some involvement in the Jan. 3 incident but avoided specifics.

Israel, meanwhile, froze contact with the Palestinian Authority and vowed not to resume it until Mr. Arafat arrested those involved in the smuggling attempt. Security contacts, however, will continue.

Early today, 12 Israeli tanks and five bulldozers rolled into the Palestinian Authority's airport by the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah and destroyed its runway, according to wire service reports.

President Bush said yesterday once all the evidence is in, those responsible for the smuggling attempt have to be held accountable, and that the United States will remain engaged in the Middle East peace process.

"Mr. Arafat must renounce terror, must reject those who would disrupt the peace process through terror, and must work hard to get to the peace table," Mr. Bush said.

An Israeli military intelligence team on Wednesday presented senior U.S. officials with what was called "clear evidence" that the operation was an "official act of the Palestinian Authority."

A senior Israeli security official said the Palestinian Authority carried out the operation with the help of Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi'ite militia, whose members loaded the weapons onto the ship in Iran during the night of Dec. 11.

Hezbollah also trained some of the people on the ship, he told reporters at a briefing late Wednesday.

"It was a strategic move carried out in a very cautious manner, with all the characteristics of a special operation," the official said.

He said Israeli military intelligence tracked the ship for months before seizing it, which it decided to do in the Red Sea before it crossed into the Mediterranean, where it is usually "more difficult to operate."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has publicly accused Mr. Arafat of ordering the arms, but the Palestinian leader denies any link.

A senior U.S. official said after the Wednesday meeting with the Israeli team the "case is very compelling" that senior Palestinian officials, including Mr. Arafat, were involved in the shipment, which is said to include Katyusha rockets.

Israel seized the ship containing arms in the Red Sea about 300 miles from its shores. It said the vessel was carrying 50 tons of Iranian-supplied munitions to Gaza on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, in violation of the 1993 Oslo accords.

Mr. Powell said he had spoken to Mr. Arafat on Wednesday and that the U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem, Ron Schlicher, would talk to Palestinian authorities "to make it clear to them that this is a very serious matter."

"They have to give it their immediate attention, they have to conduct whatever inquiries or investigations are necessary to get to the bottom of this matter," Mr. Powell said in a brief appearance at the State Department after a meeting with Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda.

In an interview with The Washington Times on Tuesday, the secretary described Israel's seizing of the ship as a "neat piece of work."

But he said the incident served to escalate the Middle East conflict.

"It is deeply troubling to see the kinds of weapons being introduced into this volatile area," Mr. Powell said.

The United States will continue to press for a truce and peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, he said. However, U.S. officials have said that if Mr. Arafat was responsible it would have consequences for the way they regard him.

A senior State Department official said yesterday the Bush administration was demanding that Mr. Arafat "stop the people that are doing this, including cutting off parts of his own Fatah organization that are involved," as well as cracking down on Islamic militant groups outside his organization such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

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