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U.N. and Israelis Meeting to Discuss Jenin Investigation

Inquiry: Sharon's defense minister says the panel's aim is to put his nation 'on trial.' Annan expects the team to start in the West Bank this weekend.

April 25, 2002|WILLIAM ORME and MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEW YORK — United Nations officials will meet here today with an Israeli delegation to discuss its objections to a U.N. investigation of the recent battle at a West Bank refugee camp, a spokesman for the world body said Wednesday.

However, Secretary-General Kofi Annan still expects the team investigating the Israeli attack on the Jenin camp to begin work in the West Bank this weekend, spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

Annan was backed by the Security Council, which issued a unanimous statement saying it fully supported his efforts and expected "the full cooperation of Israel with the secretary-general and with the fact-finding team."

The Jenin camp was heavily damaged in fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen this month. Palestinians claim that hundreds of civilians were killed in the camp; Israeli officials say there were no more than 100 Palestinian deaths and that most of those slain were fighters. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were killed in the operation.

The U.N. mission was endorsed by a Security Council resolution Friday after Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Annan that Israel would welcome a U.N. inquiry into the events at Jenin. But Israelis have since demanded that the mission be postponed or canceled, objecting to the makeup of the investigating team.

Israeli officials assert that the group, which is headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, is dominated by Europeans with an anti-Israeli bias and lacks the military expertise to evaluate the army's occupation of the camp. The investigators held their first organizational meeting in Geneva on Wednesday.

"This is a team looking into fighting in a residential area," Arye Mekel, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Wednesday in Jerusalem. "It needs military experts, not only politicians."

Israeli Cabinet members also demanded that the U.N. investigate Palestinian suicide bombings.

In a meeting with the secretary-general here Tuesday, Israel's ambassador to the U.N. pressed for "clarification on the team's composition and scope of action, as well as other issues," Eckhard said.

Annan told Ambassador Yehuda Lancry that mission leaders may recruit additional experts in counter-terrorism or other areas, but he refused to discuss the people he had appointed to the group, the spokesman said.

Annan "feels it was his team to name; he feels that the Israelis indicated to him in advance that they would cooperate with whatever team he named, and those are his people, and that's the end of the discussion," Eckhard said.

In addition to Ahtisaari, the mission will include Sadako Ogata, a former U.N. high commissioner for refugees, and Cornelio Sommaruga, a onetime director of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William L. Nash is the group's military advisor, with Peter Fitzgerald, a former Irish police commissioner, serving as an expert on security issues. Experts in forensics and international humanitarian law also are advising the group.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Wednesday that his government rescinded its agreement for the mission after it "realized that the whole trend, to put it gently, was how to entrap Israel so it could be put on trial."

Israel Television reported that the government may "delegitimize" the U.N. team if its demands aren't met, refusing to cooperate and blocking access to the camp.

As the diplomatic wrangling over the Jenin mission continued, so did the West Bank standoffs at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and in the Ramallah headquarters of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Israelis and Palestinians negotiated over the fate of gunmen holed up inside the 4th century church, the site where tradition holds that Jesus was born, even as violence flared outside the hall where they met. An Israeli sniper shot a Palestinian who stood at a window inside the church. The army said the man was armed. The Palestinian was evacuated to an Israeli hospital, where he died.

Wednesday afternoon, gunfire erupted around the church. Palestinians said three men inside were hurt.

Also Wednesday, two Palestinians surrendered to Israeli soldiers after walking out of the church with their hands up and saying they were ill.

Early this morning, the Israeli army said the Palestinian gunmen inside agreed to let a group of youths leave the church, perhaps as early as today.

In other violence Wednesday, three Palestinians were killed inthe Jabaliya refugee camp, in the Gaza Strip, in an explosion that Palestinian sources said was believed to have occurred during work on a bomb.

In the West Bank, Israeli soldiers stepped up raids on villages. Palestinians said a Fatah leader was gunned down in a raid on the village of Bani Naim, near Hebron, along with an unidentified man.

Three 14-year-old Palestinians who were crawling toward the perimeter fence of Netzarim, a Jewish settlement in Gaza, were shot and killed Tuesday night by Israeli troops.

Early today, an Israeli army unit said it shot five Palestinian police officers to death in a car near Hebron. The unit had come under fire from the car, the army said. Earlier, witnesses said, a Palestinian was killed and at least four were wounded when Israeli tanks briefly entered Hebron.

*

Orme reported from New York and Curtius from Jerusalem.

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