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War of words continues over arms shipment

U.S. envoy returns after Mideast talks

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni headed home Sunday after four days of intensive talks with Israelis and Palestinians aimed at negotiating a cease-fire, but his last day of meetings was marked by harsh words and accusations surrounding Israel's seizure of a shipload of weapons Thursday.

A U.S. State Department statement said that "while serious challenges remain, there are real opportunities for progress." Zinni is due back in the Middle East in a little over a week.

Israel said the ship was loaded with weapons intended for Palestinians to use against Israelis. Palestinians denied any involvement or ties to the ship, accusing Israel of trying to justify its plans to assault them and their leadership.

Israel displayed 50 tons of weapons it said were captured by its forces when they stormed aboard a ship off the coast of Saudi Arabia, near the Israeli border.

Israeli sources said the ship came from Sudan and the arms originated in Iran.

The sources contended the ship's captain was a member of the Palestinian security forces and several crew members were tied to the Palestinian security forces, which Israel said indicates the weapons were intended for the Palestinians.

"The operation was connected directly [to] the leaders of the Palestinian Authority [and] was led by [Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat," said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are heightened by Israel's seizure of a ship containing weapons. CNN's Jerrold Kessel reports (January 6)

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"It was his initiative, he instructed to pay the money, he sent the people and he is fully responsible for the terrible thing that could've happened to us unless the Israeli armed forces hadn't taken the right steps and the necessary steps to avoid [it]."

Arafat has repeatedly denied involvement. The Palestinian leadership said the charges were simply a propaganda attempt by Israel to undermine Zinni's peace mission to the region.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Sharon might want to use the charges "as a pretext to escalate his campaign against President Arafat and the Palestinian Authority."

"We offered Gen. Zinni and the American side a trilateral commission of inquiry into the Israeli allegation of this ship," Erakat said.

"We believe that Sharon ... is preparing the ground to escalate the attacks on the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority."

Zinni, who met with leaders from both sides during his four-day trip to the region, declined comment.

Zinni broke off his first Mideast mission in early December after a series of suicide bombing attacks on Israeli civilians by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister.

Amid increasing pressure from Israel, Europe and the United States, Arafat then called for a halt to attacks in a televised address on December 16. Afterward, Hamas said it would suspend strikes inside Israel. Islamic Jihad said it would do nothing to disrupt Palestinian unity, believed to be a signal its attacks would stop.

Hamas runs mosques, schools and clinics for Palestinians but has a military wing that conducts military and terror strikes. Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a militant group dedicated to the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state and the destruction of Israel.

Since Arafat's call for a halt, violent incidents have dropped by about 50 percent, Israeli officials have said.

-- CNN Jerusalem Bureau Chief Mike Hanna contributed to this report.


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