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Palestinian Authority won't free militant

Israel vows PFLP leader will not be released

Palestinian supporters wave Ahmad Saadat's picture during a rally Monday in Gaza.  

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- The Palestinian Authority refused Monday to follow the order of its high court and said it would keep a militant in prison for the immediate future, thereby easing a potential problem for CIA Director George Tenet, who is visiting the region.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat faced a dilemma Monday when the top Palestinian court ordered the release of Ahmad Saadat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, wanted by Israel for allegedly ordering the killing of an Israeli tourism minister.

Palestinian officials said the court decision would be respected, but not in the next few days, because the Palestinian Authority did not want the issue to detract from the Tenet mission and the attempt to restore a political and security process.

The order came as Tenet arrived to discuss Palestinian security reforms. He met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Monday and was planning to meet with Arafat Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, Sharon said Israel would not allow Saadat -- who is being held in a Jericho jail under international supervision -- to go free. He did not elaborate.

"We will take all the necessary steps so that it will not be possible to release a person who was involved in murder, who ordered murder, and whose organization carries out murders to this day," Sharon told reporters.

The PFLP had gone to the Palestinian High Court to argue there was no reason to hold Saadat. The three-judge court agreed.

The question of Saadat's release now goes to Arafat, who must decide whether to free him or keep him in jail.

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Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erakat told CNN the court's decision would be honored and that the Palestinian Authority had asked Britain and the United States to guarantee Saadat's safety.

"This is a major dilemma for President Arafat. The decision of the court must of course be respected, but we are concerned that if Ahmad Saadat is released, we have a real concern that Israel may try to abduct or assassinate him," Erakat said.

Erakat said he had not received a response yet from the United States or Britain. The two countries have been jointly supervising Saadat at a jail in Jericho since early May as part of a deal that ended the Israeli military siege of Arafat's West Bank compound. Saadat is on Israel's most-wanted list.

Saadat, 48, is being held while the Palestinian Authority investigates the PFLP's role in the killing of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in October.

The PFLP claimed responsibility for the assassination, and four members of the group were convicted of the killing by a makeshift tribunal inside Arafat's compound in Ramallah.

The U.S. State Department said the PFLP has committed numerous international terrorist attacks and conducted assaults on Israeli or moderate Arab targets. The group rejects anything less than a total Israeli withdrawal from lands occupied in 1967 Six-Day War, including East Jerusalem.

While the PFLP has been a member of Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization since the late 1960s, its military wing was outlawed by the Palestinian National Security Council following Zeevi's assassination.

Sharon was expected to tell Tenet that superficial reforms in the Palestinian Authority would not be enough to move the peace process forward. Tenet was expected to urge Arafat to combine Palestinian security operations under an interior minister.

Under the Tenet and Mitchell proposals for restarting peace talks, security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians is considered the first step.

Arafat had been under pressure from inside the Palestinian territories and from the international community, including a number of Arab countries, to reform the Palestinian Authority.

Aides have said Arafat intends to announce a new, smaller Cabinet with fewer than 20 ministers. To expand the government he has ruled almost single-handedly, Arafat offered Cabinet seats to the PFLP and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Both rejected the offers immediately.

Hamas, which has carried out the most devastating attacks against Israelis during the current intifada, considered the offer but said Monday it would not be in the interest of the Palestinian people for the group to join Arafat's Cabinet.

Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist organization, has been labeled by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. The group's military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, has admitted responsibility for terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians as well as attacks against the Israeli military.

Arafat aides continue to say that the Palestinian leader plans to call for new elections for president of the Palestinian Authority and for the Palestine Legislative Council. However, Arafat has said elections cannot go forward so long as Israeli troops remain around major Palestinian cities.

Israel continues West Bank operations

On Monday, Israeli troops were questioning Palestinians in and around the West Bank towns of Nablus and Qalqilya.

The Israel Defense Forces said troops conducting searches Sunday in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus destroyed a bomb factory in the house of a late Palestinian man suspected of terrorist activity. (Full story)

Since Operation Defensive Shield, the military campaign in the West Bank, ended in May, the IDF has carried out a number of incursions into Palestinian areas, making arrests and then withdrawing.

In East Jerusalem, guards were protecting workmen who began clearing land Monday for 100 apartments on a site near the southern Arab neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber.

The Israeli government had pledged not to begin any new settlements in the West Bank or Gaza but has said Jerusalem is an exception.

Israeli opposition leader Yossi Sarid said the construction was a new "provocative act by the Sharon-Peres" government.




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