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U.N. Delays Fact-Finding Mission to West Bank Camp

Mideast: In a reversal, Annan agrees to one-day postponement so Israeli Cabinet can discuss the matter when it convenes after the Jewish Sabbath.


UNITED NATIONS — Israel and the United Nations averted a confrontation Friday as Secretary-General Kofi Annan agreed to delay a fact-finding mission to the West Bank until after the Israeli Cabinet meets Sunday to discuss the inquiry.

Senior U.N. officials had said early Friday that the mission would depart as planned to the region today, despite an Israeli demand that the world body postpone the inquiry, ordered by the Security Council, into Israel's recent three-week occupation of the Jenin refugee camp.

But after two days of what they termed "cordial and constructive" talks with Israeli representatives here, U.N. officials agreed to put the mission on hold another day, until after the Jewish Sabbath, when the Cabinet will reconvene.

Access to the camp requires Israeli cooperation, U.N. officials acknowledge.

After the talks, Annan's top aides told Security Council members that it appeared the dispute was largely resolved--sentiments also expressed privately by some Israeli officials here, diplomats said, despite the seemingly unyielding stance of their government.

The U.N. fact-finding team's personnel and investigation priorities "cannot be reconciled with the mandate in the Security Council resolution," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office declared in a statement in Jerusalem earlier Friday. "For the purpose of these clarifications, Israel requests that the arrival of the commission be delayed."

Israel wanted military experts added to the mission's leadership troika. The three people named Monday by Annan are a former Finnish president, a past chief of the International Committee of the Red Cross and a former chief of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. Israel fears that they will concentrate on investigating human rights abuses to the exclusion of considering Israeli security concerns.

But U.N. officials said that although Annan had agreed to name additional military advisors to the team, he would not add or remove mission leaders.

The Israeli delegation "has been ordered to insist on the points," the early statement from Sharon's office said. But Israel failed to secure U.S. backing for its position, Western diplomats said.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell discussed the impasse with Sharon by phone Friday and reiterated the Bush administration's position that it was up to Annan to select and supervise investigative team members, U.S. diplomats said.

Among those urging Powell to call Sharon, diplomatic sources said, were members of the Israeli delegation here. Israeli diplomats were anxious to avoid a confrontation with the Security Council, which, with U.S. support and Israeli Foreign Ministry approval, authorized Annan to dispatch the team a week ago.

"Those decisions are to be made by the secretary-general," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters in Washington after Powell's call. "We look forward to Israel and the United Nations working this out as soon as possible."

Israeli officials continued to express concerns about the mandate of the fact-finding team.

"We want to make sure that what happened is interpreted in a just and accurate way," Danny Ayalon, Sharon's foreign policy advisor, said in Jerusalem late Friday.

The Israeli diplomats and defense officials meeting here also were seeking assurances that statements to U.N. investigators would not be admissible in any war crimes trials. Israel is less concerned about a possible inquiry at the U.N., where it would enjoy some U.S. protection, than prosecution in another nation.

Kieran Prendergast, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, pledged to the Israelis that there would be "no legal ramifications" for anyone cooperating with the inquiry, Western diplomats here said.

In addition, Israel wants the investigation to be confined to events in the Jenin camp and to include its use as a base for Palestinian suicide bombers.

Palestinians have claimed that hundreds of civilians were killed during Israel's battle for control of the camp, the scene of the fiercest fighting during the army's recent West Bank offensive. Israel denies that, saying that almost all those killed were armed militia members.

Meanwhile, Israeli forces reentered the West Bank city of Kalkilya and nearby villages Friday, defying fresh calls by President Bush for Israel to complete its withdrawal from Palestinian areas.

Kalkilya Hospital director Arwa Shanti said tanks and troops entered the city about 3 a.m., searching house to house and engaging in firefights with Palestinian gunmen before withdrawing late in the day.

One man, identified by Israel as the local leader of a radical Palestinian faction, was killed in the raid, the most extensive incursion into Palestinian territory since the army ended its large-scale offensive early this week. Sixteen others were arrested, an army spokeswoman said.

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