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European Leaders Are Alarmed By Rising Turmoil in Mideast
WARREN HOGE . NY Times . 29 march 2002

LONDON, March 29 — European nations expressed alarm today at the escalating warfare in the Middle East, urged a return to negotiations and pointedly warned the Israelis against harming the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.

"It is not by asphyxiating Arafat that a solution will be found," said Hubert Védrine, the French foreign minister. He said he "understood how Israelis felt faced with the terrifying pressure of terrorist attacks," but he cautioned them not to act against Mr. Arafat based on "a kind of obsession that he is responsible for all that."

Officials coupled their appeals for restraint with denunciations of the suicide bombings in Israel. But the focus of their concern was on Mr. Arafat, a frequent visitor to European capitals and a man who European officials view as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians despite attempts by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel to marginalize him.

"Any attempt to crush the Palestinian leadership is unacceptable to the international community and will only lead to greater losses and insecurity for Israel," said Anna Lindh, Sweden's foreign minister. Ms. Lindh said she was "horrified" to hear Mr. Sharon refer to Mr. Arafat this morning as his "enemy."

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, spoke by telephone with both Mr. Arafat and Shimon Peres, the Israeli foreign minister. Afterwards, Mr. Solana's spokeswoman, Cristina Gallach, said, "We are not going to resolve the Palestinian conflict by military action." She noted that the recent European Union summit meeting in Barcelona had reaffirmed the organization's faith in Mr. Arafat. "He remains our interlocutor and the legitimate authority," she said.

A French foreign ministry spokesman, François Rivasseau, said, "We are calling on the Israeli authorities to respect the physical safety of Yasir Arafat." He also called on Washington to step in more forcefully than it has. "We continue to plead for the Americans to commit themselves further," he said. "It is they who have the most means to reason with the opposing parties."

Igor Ivanov, Russia's foreign minister, expressed "extreme concern" at today's events and joined in the appeals against efforts to exclude Mr. Arafat. "We consider that the policy of isolating Arafat is not the way to find a way out of this situation," he said.

He said that Russia was engaged in "active consultations" with the United States and Europe over ways to control the violence in the Mideast. Urgent international action was needed, he said, "to halt this crisis, which threatens not only regional stability but could also spill over beyond the region."

Muriel Berset-Kohen, a spokeswoman for Switzerland's foreign ministry, called Mr. Arafat "our legitimate interlocutor" and added, "Nothing must be done to harm him."

Prime Minister Bertie Ahern of Ireland telephoned Mr. Arafat and afterwards called on Israel to withdraw its forces from the Palestinian headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah and to end its "harassment" of the Palestinian leader.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Austria's foreign minister, said, "If any harm came to President Arafat, it would doubtless have a widespread negative impact on the Middle East conflict, which would help neither Israel nor help resolve the problem."

Belgium expressed "anguish" at today's confrontation, saying it "could not accept that the physical integrity of President Arafat be placed in danger."

George Papandreou, the Greek foreign minister, decried the effort to marginalize Mr. Arafat, saying, "We condemn the army's intervention and the isolation of Mr. Arafat, just as we condemn the terrorist attacks."

Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, made no mention of Mr. Arafat or Mr. Sharon in issuing a statement saying: "The situation is extremely critical for the millions of people who live in Israel and the Occupied Territories. But never has there been a greater need for restraint to be shown on both sides. It can only be through negotiation that there will ever be a peaceful future for the citizens of Israel, for the Palestinians and for everyone in the region."

In Berlin, Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, condemned "barbarous acts of terrorism" against Israeli civilians and urged both sides to return to U.S.-brokered talks.

The Italian government had no comment, but the main opposition party, the Democrats of the Left, said today's actions proved "the absolute inadequacy of Prime Minister Sharon and his politics."

Turkey, which has close diplomatic and military ties with Israel, singled out its ally in a plea for calm on all parties. "We call on both sides to take a rational path," a government spokesman, Sukru Sina Gurel, said. But he quickly added, "Particularly Israel, in order to display rational, forward-looking and constructive stances, needs to review many concepts and views it holds."