Swiss warn Israel not to harm Arafat

Israeli army tanks rolled into the West Bank town of Ramallah on Friday Keystone

The Swiss government has warned Israel not to harm the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, after his headquarters came under sustained attack on Friday.

This content was published on March 29, 2002 minutes

The government also called for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Arafat's compound is situated.

Arafat's headquarters, which lie just 700 metres away from the Swiss liaison office to the Palestinian Authority, came under heavy fire after Israeli forces broke into the compound shortly after dawn.

Muriel Berset-Kohen, a spokeswoman for the Swiss Foreign Ministry, said Arafat was Switzerland's "legitimate and democratically elected interlocutor".

"Nothing should be done to harm him," she added.

The assault on Arafat's compound came just hours after the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, branded the Palestinian leader "an enemy".

Gun battle

Palestinian officials said a gun battle erupted between Arafat's bodyguards and Israeli troops after an armoured bulldozer punched a hole through the compound's perimeter wall. Tank shells were fired at Arafat's office building, setting it on fire.

Palestinian officials said Arafat was inside at the time, but was not harmed. Israel's response follows a series of bloody attacks on Israelis over the past few days.

At least two people were killed and more than 20 injured in a suicide bombing in a Jerusalem supermarket on Friday afternoon. On Wednesday, an 18-year-old Palestinian suicide bomber killed 21 Israelis in the northern coastal town of Netanya.

Berset-Kohen added that the Saudi peace initiative, delivered to the Arab League summit on Thursday, was an important step forward. "We support this proposal but it remains to be seen whether it can actually work," she said.

The Saudi deal offers Israel normal ties with Arab countries in return for Israel's full withdrawal from Arab and Palestinian lands occupied in 1967.

swissinfo with agencies

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