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Caged Arafat works phones

Gaza, June 3 (Reuters): Yasser Arafat remained isolated behind mounds of rubble at his West Bank compound today but his exclusion from a landmark summit in Egypt could not stop him from playing a behind-the-scenes role.

Aides to Arafat, once a frequent flier to foreign capitals, suggested he was not happy about being frozen out of the US-Arab talks, where reformist Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas led the Palestinian delegation.

But they made clear that the Palestinian president — an icon of Palestinian nationalism — had made his presence felt at the one-day summit in the Red Sea port of Sharm el-Sheikh as he worked phones and followed the proceedings on television.

“The President is besieged and his movement is limited to his office but he is aware and in contact with all that happens in Sharm el-Sheikh and elsewhere, minute by minute,” senior Arafat aide Ahmed Abdel-Rahman said.

Arafat — whose headquarters were half-destroyed during Israel’s reoccupation of Ramallah and much of the West Bank last summer — ceded some of his powers to Abbas in April under intense US and European pressure.

President George W. Bush had joined Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in trying to sideline Arafat. Israel accused the former guerrilla leader of fomenting anti-Israel violence, an allegation which he denied.

In Arafat’s place, Abbas was invited to attend Bush’s meeting with Arab leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt today as well as a three-way summit with Sharon in Aqaba, Jordan tomorrow to discuss a “road map” for ending 32 months of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

US secretary of state Colin Powell today effectively warned Arafat not to act as a spoiler to US efforts to bring about a West Asian peace deal and a Palestinian state and stressed the US view that he is a “failed” leader.

“Yasser Arafat was not here today and Prime Minister Abbas was,” Powell bluntly told reporters in Sharm el-Sheikh after Bush met Abbas, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain.

“For Arafat to serve as a spoiler or attempt to be a spoiler, I hope will be met by resistance from all of the Arab leaders who are here today and such spoiling activities will be met with resistance by the international community,” he added.

Despite the US effort to isolate him, many Palestinians scoff at the idea of Arafat being pushed aside. He retains policy-making clout, control of key Palestinian security forces and the loyalty of many senior officials and ordinary Palestinians.

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