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EU enovoys fail to meet Arafat

Israeli troops on patrol in Bethlehem
Israeli troops on patrol in Bethlehem  

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- A European Union mission to press for a Middle East ceasefire has been prevented by Israel from meeting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique cut short their trip, cancelled a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and headed home on Thursday.

Before leaving, Solana played down talk of a crisis between Israel and the 15-nation EU, its biggest trading partner.

"There is no crisis at all between the European Union and Israel. If there was a crisis, we would not be here," Solana told reporters in Jerusalem.

European Commission President Romano Prodi, however, said on Thursday that the Middle East situation was "getting worse at frightening speed."

Shortly after Solana and Pique left, the Israeli government announced that it would let U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni visit Arafat.

The EU envoys did meet Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defence Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer as well as a quartet of international peace mediators.

Pique said they had demanded that Israel allow free passage to ambulances and relief workers and refrain from attacking holy sites or clergy.

"I must express my enormous concern about the humanitarian situation and over respect for humanitarian law," he said.

"We expressed this concern to the defence minister. He has promised us he would take measures."

Pique said the EU was also very concerned about growing tension in northern Israel.




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