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U.S. response to attack on Arafat compound muted

Israeli troops enter Arafat's Ramallah headquarters on Friday after Israelis broke through the wall.
Israeli troops enter Arafat's Ramallah headquarters on Friday after Israelis broke through the wall.  

From Kelly Wallace
CNN Washington

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration has said little as of Friday morning about the escalation of violence in the Middle East, with Israeli tanks firing on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Ramallah offices, other than to say it is watching the situation "very closely" and assessing "appropriate responses" to developments on the ground.

"We are monitoring events very closely and are assessing appropriate responses to developments in the region," Sean McCormack, National Security Council spokesman, told CNN. McCormack said the U.S. Middle East envoy, Gen. Anthony Zinni, "remains in the region, is in contact with the parties and continues his work."

In Beirut, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah said United States officials had told him that "Arafat will not be harmed." And an Israeli official said Arafat "has nothing to fear."

However, Arafat's spokesman inside the compound said the facility was "under heavy attack," and the Palestinian leader was the target.

"(Arafat's) life is in danger and he is facing, with his freedom fighters, this Israeli aggression which should be stopped immediately," said the spokesman, Abu Rudeineh.

Arafat continued to make phone calls to Arab leaders, Rudeineh said, and had spoken to Zinni, who was in Jericho to meet with chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat

Zinni was also expected to meet with Israeli negotiators Friday.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke with Secretary of State Colin Powell Thursday night, a senior U.S. official said, declining to give any details about the conversation.

Asked if the U.S. was planning to call on Israel to exercise restraint and to order its tanks to stop firing on Arafat's offices, a senior administration official said the administration continues to assess "appropriate responses."

Thursday, before the Israeli action, the State Department was calling on "both parties" to "keep in mind the need to create an environment where progress is possible." Richard Boucher, State Department spokesman, said, "We look to both parties to avoid violence, to avoid harm to civilians, to avoid steps that make it more difficult ot reach an end to the violence."

President Bush received an update on the situation in the Middle East as part of his daily national security briefing, which was conducted via video-teleconference from his Crawford, Texas ranch.

Most Bush advisers have remained in Washington, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. The only top aides joining Bush at his ranch are Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin and National Security Council Executive Secretary Steve Beigun.

Bush has no public events on his schedule Friday. A State Department briefing has been set for 1 p.m. EST, with deputy spokesman Phil Reeker.




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