Wed, Oct 08, 2003 - Page 6 News List

No need to hold back, Bush tells Israel

SELF-DEFENSE The US president said that he has told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel should not feel constrained in defending itself from armed threats

REUTERS , WASHINGTON AND JERUSALEM

A Palestinian fighter belonging to President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement fixes ammunition on his anti-aircraft machine gun on Monday in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain el-Helweh in southern Lebanon.

PHOTO: AFP

US President George W. Bush said Israel should not feel constrained in defending itself as tensions rose over the Jewish state's deepest air raid into Syria since the 1973 Middle East War.

Bush backed Israel's right to self-defense after Sunday's air raid on an alleged training camp for Palestinian militants, following a Palestinian suicide bombing that killed 19 people in Israel on Saturday.

But tensions continued to rise throughout Monday. The Israeli army said one of its soldiers had been shot dead at Israel's border with Lebanon, and military sources blamed his death on Hezbollah guerrillas backed by Iran and Syria.

"The shooting is an attack which is another dimension in the terror policy dictated and supported by the government of Lebanon and fully backed by Syria," the army said.

Major General Benny Gantz, commander of Israel's northern corps, said: "We are speaking of very dangerous moves by Syria, Iran and Lebanon, and if these three states are not careful, the situation is likely to deteriorate."

Hezbollah denied that its forces had been involved in any shooting.

An official from the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon said one of its water trucks was hit by three bullets fired from inside Israel during the incident.

Early yesterday, a missile landed on a house in a south Lebanon town, killing a boy and wounding his brother. One security source told reporters in Beirut the origin of the missile was unclear. Other security sources said the missile was probably fired at Israel from inside Lebanon but fell short.

Bush said he told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by telephone on Sunday that Israel should not feel constrained in defending itself.

"However, I said that it's very important that any action Israel take(s) should avoid escalation and creating higher tensions," Bush said in Washington.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the US had urged Israel and Syria to avoid "actions that heighten tensions or that could lead to hostilities."

Political analysts doubt three years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict will trigger violence across the Middle East, but Israel now faces heightened tensions with Syria and Lebanon.

A senior Sharon adviser said that Saturday's suicide attack meant that Israel was likely to act faster on a decision it took in principle last month to remove Palestinian President Yasser Arafat from power.

"How he will be removed and when will be decided according to the circumstances," Raanan Gissin told reporters, reiterating that Arafat's days were numbered.

The Palestinians are obliged to rein in the militants under a stalled US-backed peace "road map," but Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie ruled out a crackdown for fear of starting a civil war.

"There won't be a civil war, [I will do it] through dialogue," he said on Monday.

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