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At Putin's Urging, Barak and Arafat Talk, Agree to Keep Liaison Offices

Mideast: Moscow seeks more active role. Despite leaders' phone call, Israeli-Palestinian clashes continue.


BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat agreed by telephone Friday to reopen 10 joint security offices in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but the rare talks arranged by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin did not prevent a fresh round of violent attacks.

Hours after Putin reaffirmed Russia's role as mediator in the conflict, Israeli tanks and Palestinian security forces faced off near Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, the site of heavy exchanges of gunfire Friday. Palestinian gunmen there fired at Israeli troops from behind walls of sandbags, drawing return fire and prompting an exchange of antitank missiles, the army said. An Israeli officer was killed and five Palestinians wounded.

At least five Palestinians were reported killed by Israeli forces across the region, including an activist in Arafat's Fatah movement.

A Jewish settler wearing a flak jacket was also killed, the Israeli army said. He had been driving near the West Bank city of Nablus when he was fatally shot through the heart by a Palestinian sniper, witnesses said.

Just before 2 p.m., an Israeli tank fired two shells at the top three floors of the Paradise Hotel in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem. The military said it launched the attack--the heaviest yet against the hotel, according to its owner--in response to Palestinian gunfire from the vicinity. The hotel was unoccupied because of the intifada, or Palestinian uprising.

"The Israeli army gave us an early Christmas gift," local travel agent Elias Atrash sneered, adding that one taxi driver trying to avoid the shelling suffered a facial cut.

Despite continued clashes, the unexpected surge of diplomatic gestures continued Friday evening, with an Israeli announcement of visits next week by Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami to his counterpart in Russia and by Barak's senior security advisor, Danny Yatom, to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.

Barak and Arafat, in their first direct talks in almost a month, agreed Friday to a small, trust-building step by resuming a measure of security cooperation at the field level, a cornerstone of interim peace accords. The joint security effort, operated out of 10 Israeli-Palestinian liaison offices on Israeli-controlled territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, had fallen apart Thursday after a bombing at one of the compounds, located in Gaza between Khan Yunis and the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim, killed an Israeli lieutenant.

Israel had subsequently ordered the offices closed, although Palestinian officers never actually left because they were awaiting orders from Arafat.

The phone call between the two leaders took place during Arafat's six-hour trip to Moscow to seek Putin's help in stopping what Palestinians call aggression by Israeli troops.

Reflecting Russia's desire to play a more prominent role in Middle East peacemaking than it has in the recent past, Putin engineered the call from Arafat to Barak from his own office and also spoke briefly to the Israeli leader.

"It is becoming more and more obvious to everyone that the negotiations will make little or no progress if Russia is not included," argued Vitaly V. Naumkin, director of the Russian Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow, in an interview Friday night.

"The phone conversation is symbolic in that it shows the recognition of Russia's importance for the region and the recognition of Russia's constructive role . . . as an equal partner who will work with both sides," he said.

While formally a co-sponsor of the peace process, Russia's role has been much diminished in recent years compared with that of the United States.

Many Arabs have been urging the Russians to again get more involved in the peace process, believing that Russia is not biased in favor of Israel and that it is more open than Washington to the Arab world's viewpoints on critical issues such as Jerusalem and the future of Palestinian refugees.

Russia under former President Boris N. Yeltsin had contented itself with taking a back seat to President Clinton's efforts to use the United States' greater leverage on the two sides to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

That may be changing, however, as Putin begins to be more active on the diplomatic front.

National pride was wounded last month when Putin was not even invited to the emergency Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, peace summit. The meeting, led by Clinton, was an early attempt to stem the outbreak of violence in the occupied territories that began two months ago.

"We have proposed some ideas to go beyond the Sharm el Sheik accords, to implement them and to broaden the range of implementation," said First Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Avdeyev, quoted by the Itar-Tass news agency.

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