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U.S. vetoes U.N. observer force for West Bank, Gaza

UNITED NATIONS -- The United States late Tuesday vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have backed the creation of an international observer force to help protect civilians in the West Bank and Gaza.

The vote came after five days of intense negotiations, as non-aligned nations supporting the Palestinians stopped discussing any changes to the resolution. Sponsors of the resolution said they wanted a vote before the end of the Arab summit in Amman, Jordan.

In issuing its veto, chief American representative James Cunningham said: "The United States opposed this resolution because it is unbalanced and unworkable and hence unwise. It is more responsive to political theater than political reality."

Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi told CNN that if the U.S. continued to prevent any intervention, there would be more loss of life.

CNN's Richard Roth reports on the negotiations at the U.N.

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The vote, shortly before midnight, was 9 to 1, with 4 abstentions. Ukraine did not vote.

In favor were Bangladesh, Colombia, Jamaica, Mali, Mauritius, Singapore, Tunisia, Russia and China. Abstaining were Europeans Britain, France, Ireland and Norway.

At issue is a repeat appeal by Palestinians for the Security Council to state its willingness to send unarmed U.N. observers to the West Bank and Gaza, even if Israel refuses to allow them into the territories.

The United States, Israel's ally, has been in marathon negotiations for five days on a European compromise text that would not commit the council to any specific action without the agreement of Israel and the Palestinians.

More than 400 people, almost all of them Palestinians, have been killed in six months of violence between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers.

Palestinians and their supporters said they called for a vote before an Arab summit ended in Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday after the United States had wanted another delay.

Bangladesh's ambassador, Anwarul Chowdhury, said the seven sponsors of the resolution had to press for a vote because timing was "absolutely essential."

Cunningham cast the first veto for the United States since March 1997, when Washington twice vetoed a resolution demanding Israel halt work on Jewish housing projects on grounds the issue should not be brought to the United Nations.

But in this case, the Bush administration had negotiated intensively in trying to reach agreement with the Palestinians. U.S. delegates had agreed to criticize Israel on several points, including settlements, the closure of its crossings and the withholding of taxes from the Palestinian Authority.

Western diplomats said the move for a vote before an Arab summit ended in Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday appeared to be aimed at embarrassing Washington and Israel.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, diplomats said, also tried to avert a veto and pushed Palestinian President Yasser Arafat at the Amman summit to continue negotiations and not estrange himself from the new U.S. government. His plea worked for about 12 hours only.

Nasser al-Kidwa, the chief Palestinian delegate, told the council, "There was no way to give up or go a step backward by giving up the legitimate needs of our people, including the need for international protection."

But Israeli ambassador Yehuda Lancry said that "the current Palestinian initiative represents a blatant attempt to obscure the strategic choice to engage in violence and terrorism. The Security Council must not endorse such a choice by coming to the aid of those who initiate hostile confrontations."

A resolution needs nine "yes" votes and no veto from any of the five permanent council members to be adopted in the 15-nation body. A measure calling for a U.N. observer force failed in December because it obtained only eight votes, sparing Washington the use of its veto.

At that time, Russia abstained with Western countries rather than vote in favor. Diplomats said Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had appealed to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov only days before Tuesday's vote.

The envoys speculated Russia may have been reacting to the biggest tit-for-tat spy scandal with the United States since the Cold War when Washington expelled four diplomats last week and said 46 more should leave by July.

But its representative, Gennady Gatilov, said the situation in the territories Israel occupied after the 1967 war was growing worse and the Security Council could not "divorce itself from the tragic events in the West Bank and Gaza."

The defeated Palestinian-initiated draft says the council would be prepared, after Secretary-General Kofi Annan consults both sides, to set up "an appropriate mechanism to protect Palestinian civilians, including through the establishment of a United Nations observer force."

While Israel has welcomed Annan's quiet mediation, it does not want the world body itself playing a role. Arab nations can easily muster a majority in the 189-member General Assembly. Al-Kidwa said he would submit the same resolution there.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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