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Arafat drumming up support in Asia

Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat: seeking support during Asian mini-tour  

NEW DELHI, India -- Palestinian President Yasser Arafat has said he is willing to meet and discuss peace proposals with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to end 11 months of Middle East conflict.

Speaking Thursday during his Asian mini-tour, Arafat said he was optimistic but added the meeting "was not definite" with details "still to be finalised".

Arriving in India to drum up support for the Palestinians in the Middle East crisis, Arafat said he was waiting for a response from German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who has been trying to organise the meeting.

Seeking to drum up regional support for the Palestinian Authority, Arafat's tour was taking in India, Pakistan and China.

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Arafat last visited India a year ago to seek support for his plan to declare an independent Palestinian state.

Pakistan, which does not recognise Israel, has been a strong backer of the Palestinians.

China, one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and the final stop on Arafat's Asian mini tour, meanwhile called for "utmost restraint" in the Middle East, especially from Israel.

Fischer visited the West Bank this week on a mediation mission.

"It (a meeting) is a proposal," Arafat told a local television channel on arrival in New Delhi on Thursday.

"We had met. I had met Shimon Peres in Cairo, in Lisbon before that, before that my colleagues met him in Athens with the participation of the European Union's Javier Solana and we have no objection to meeting him at any time."

Asked if the meeting with Peres was definite, Arafat said: "Not yet. We are waiting for the final response from Mr Fischer."

Fischer is trying to secure a truce between Israel and Palestine to end the bloodshed that began last September after peace talks stalled. Almost 700 people, including more than 520 Palestinians and some 150 Israelis, have been killed since then.

Peres said earlier he hoped to meet Arafat "rather soon."

Emergency meeting

The Israelis, whose settlements still occupy pockets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the Palestinians blame each other for the violence.

Arafat was to meet Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee before leaving on Thursday for Pakistan, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told Reuters news agency.

Arab League
Arafat, center, is surrounded by Arab delegates upon his arrival at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo Wednesday  

"I have come here to make consultations with our friends on how to carry on in the international field, specially in the United Nations and in the Security Council," Arafat said.

Arafat arrived in New Delhi from an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo.

The ministers wound up their meeting on Wednesday with tepid calls for political and economic help for the Palestinians and a familiar litany of condemnation of Israeli policies against them.

Arafat was scheduled to arrive in Beijing from Pakistan on Thursday evening at the invitation of President Jiang Zemin.

China's each-way bet

He was expected to urge China to play a more active role to help end violence in the Middle East.

Beijing has remained largely even-handed to balance ties with its old Arab allies and Israel, a key arms supplier.

But it has recently condemned Israel's use of force and backed a Palestinian proposal to send international observers to the region -- a plan which Israel opposes.

Analysts say China wants to be seen to take an active role in the area by keeping in step with the trend of world opinion.

But some have linked Beijing's recent criticism of Israel to Israeli cancellation of the sale to China of a $250 million Phalcon early-warning radar system last year after U.S. pressure.

India was an early supporter of the Palestinian cause but has been nurturing closer political and economic ties with Israel.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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