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Middle East dominates Crans Montana Forum

Couchepin (right) listens to Fawaz Alamy, deputy minister for technical affairs for Saudi Arabia.

(Keystone)

Middle East politics has dominated the agenda at the 13th Crans Montana forum in Switzerland, which drew high-ranking political and business leaders.

On Sunday afternoon, the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, spoke to the congress by satellite telephone saying he was prepared to meet the United States president, George W Bush, "any time, anywhere" to discuss peace in the Middle East.

Arafat made his comments despite Bush's recent call for his removal from power in a bid to pave the way for the creation of a Palestinian state existing alongside Israel.

Arafat, who took part in an hour-long Q&A session with the delegates, reiterated his desire to return to the negotiating table and to fight terrorist activity, which he blamed on groups based outside of the Palestinian-controlled territories.

He remained outspoken in his criticism of Israeli incursions into Palestinian-controlled territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

A Palestinian official said Arafat had been forced to address the conference by telephone because the Israelis had refused to install video-conferencing equipment in his Ramallah headquarters.

The four-day forum drew around 1,200 government and business leaders from around the world, to discuss topics ranging from European Union enlargement to reconstruction in Afghanistan.

But delegates also paused to watch Sunday's football world cup final on a giant screen erected in the conference building.

Swiss representation

Both Switzerland's foreign minister, Joesph Deiss and the economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, attended the forum.

Couchepin led a discussion on the social responsibility of corporate business, made all the more poignant in the wake of last week's scandals surrounding the corrupt accounting practices of Worldcom and Xerox.

Deiss spent divided his time among several high ranking delegates, including the American civil rights activist, Jesse Jackson.

He also discussed development aid with Rwanda's prime minister, Bernard Makuza and met the head of the International Committee for the Red Cross, Paul Grossreider, to discuss the Middle East crisis.

Anti-globalisation protesters

For the first time in the conference's history, around 30 anti-globalisation protesters were invited to take part in the proceedings.

However, they were later barred from entering the meeting rooms on the grounds of causing disturbances.

swissinfo with agencies


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