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Leave us alone: Arafat to Laden

London, Dec. 15 (Reuters): Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has ordered al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden to stop exploiting the Palestinian cause to further his own interests.

In an interview with Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper, Arafat said he believed Laden and his al Qaida network were using the Palestinian campaign for independence to gain support in the Islamic world.

“Why is bin Laden talking about Palestine now'... He never helped us. He was working in another, completely different area and against our interests,” Arafat told the paper. “I’m telling him directly not to hide behind the Palestinian cause.”

Arafat gave the interview after a purported al Qaida statement was posted on a Islamist web site, claiming responsibility for last month’s bomb attacks on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, that killed 16 people.

“The operations send the message to the Jews that their corruption on earth, the occupation of our sanctities, the crimes against our Palestinian people... will not go unanswered and will be met many fold,” said the statement, signed by the “Political Office of Qaida al-Jihad”.

That statement was followed by a notice posted on a pro-al Qaida web site announcing the launch of an “Islamic al Qaida Organisation in Palestine”, which would “serve as a powerful basis for restoring the rights of our Arab and Islamic people in Palestine”.

“We declare that the squadrons of our martyrs will strike with all their might the Zionist and American arrogance in the region and that the blood of our men in Palestine, Afghanistan and Kashmir will not go unavenged,” it added.

US intelligence officials said they monitored that web site but could not say how credible the reports were. Arafat said al Qaida had tried to justify attacks by claiming they were part of a campaign to seize control of Palestinian territories from Israel.

He also dismissed as “big, big lies” claims by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that al Qaida had established a presence in the Palestinian-ruled areas of the Gaza Strip and in Lebanon. “Sharon wants to cover his military attacks against the Palestinian people with a new face. He knows that there are no relations between al Qaida and Palestine.”

Christmas bar

Israel today barred Arafat from visiting Bethlehem for Christmas and decided to keep its army in the West Bank city over the holiday, a government official said.

“Arafat will not be allowed to go into Bethlehem on Christmas and Israeli troops will not pull out,” an Israeli diplomatic source said, announcing the decision taken at the weekly meeting of Sharon’s cabinet. The source said Israeli troops in Bethlehem would keep“normal security procedures in place”.

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