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Israel, Palestinians Trade Charges After Arms Are Seized on High Seas

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Israel’s capture of a weapons-laden ship it says was bound for the Gaza Strip has dealt a new blow to its already-frayed relations with the Palestinian Authority.

Just the same, security officials from the two sides discussed a truce with the U.S. envoy to the Middle East, Anthony Zinni.

Zinni, who was slated to return home Monday, tried to get the two sides to adopt a cease-fire deal drafted last year by CIA Director George Tenet.

After meeting with Zinni earlier Sunday, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said cease-fire efforts with the Palestinians will continue, despite the Palestinian Authority’s attempt to smuggle arms into the region. Palestinian officials denied any involvement in the incident, which Peres said had damaged the Palestinian Authority’s credibility.

In Washington last Friday, the U.S. State Department condemned “any attempt to smuggle weapons” into the area because providing weapons to militants “escalates the conflict.”

During his meeting with the security officials, Zinni got the two sides to use an agreement reached by Peres and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat at a meeting several months ago at the Gaza airport as the basis for future cease-fire talks.

During that meeting, Peres and Arafat outlined specific steps the two sides would take for implementing the Tenet plan.

The steps included a call for Israel to lift its blockade on population centers, and for the Palestinian Authority to clamp down on terrorists.

But it remained unclear whether the two sides would be able to make any progress toward a cease-fire following Israel’s capture of the Palestinian-owned ship, the Karine-A.

On Sunday, Israel flew foreign diplomats and military attaches to Eilat to view the ship.

Speaking in front of the ship Sunday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accused Arafat of issuing the order to purchase the arms “to bring about a regional deterioration which would lead to war.”

On Jan. 3, Israeli commandos captured the ship in international waters in the Red Sea, about 300 miles from Eilat. The ship’s cargo included Iranian-made weapons, including rockets, missiles, mortars and mines.

Calling Arafat a “bitter enemy” of Israel, Sharon said Sunday that the Palestinian leader had made a “strategic decision” to align himself with terrorists.

“The Palestinian Authority is a central part in the international terror network, with Iran at its center,” Sharon said.

Despite the repeated denials from Palestinian officials, the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, said the Palestinian link to the boat was “unequivocal and undeniable.”

Israeli officials said the captured crew of the Karine-A included several senior Palestinian Authority naval officers, including the captain.

Mofaz said the official had confirmed that the Palestinian Authority was behind the smuggling attempt.

Mofaz also said the weapons were headed to militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The rockets and mortars included in the shipment would have posed a direct threat to Israeli cities and towns, he added.

Speaking at Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, Mofaz said the government should reassess its policy toward the Palestinians in light of the weapons seizure.

For their part, Palestinian officials charged that Israel was trying to make political hay out of the weapons shipment and scuttle Zinni’s second mission to the region.

As Israelis and Palestinians traded charges and countercharges, U.S. officials painted an optimistic picture of the Zinni mission.

In a statement issued by the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, the officials said Zinni had started to lay the foundation needed to implement a cease-fire.

“It is clear that, while serious challenges remain, there are real opportunities for progress,” the statement said.

It gave no time frame for the possible implementation of a truce, but said security talks between the two sides would continue after Zinni left the region.

The statement added that Zinni “will return to the region in the near future to assess what the parties have been able to accomplish.”

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