Arafat defiant in face of Sharon death threats
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat responded defiantly on Saturday to new threats against his life by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, telling a crowd of supporters he would embrace "martyrdom."
But flashing a V-for-Victory sign, he vowed to continue to lead his people, declaring: "I want to tell Sharon and his gang that the mountain cannot be shaken by the wind."
In fresh violence, Israeli forces killed three Palestinians, at least two of them militants, in the West Bank city of Jenin.
Sharon, in comments that could rally support in his right-wing Likud party before its May 2 vote on his Gaza pullout plan, said on Friday he no longer felt bound by a pledge he made three years ago to President Bush not to harm Arafat.
"I release myself from this commitment regarding Arafat," Sharon told Israel's Channel Two television in his strongest verbal threat yet against his long-time adversary.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Washington expected Sharon to keep his promise to Bush. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice phoned Sharon's chief of staff to voice opposition to any move against Arafat, a U.S. official said.
PALESTINIAN PM LASHES OUT AT U.S.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie issued a statement blaming "flagrant" U.S. bias toward Israel for emboldening Sharon to threaten Arafat.
Bush enraged Palestinians and the Arab world last week when he broke with decades of U.S. policy by endorsing Sharon's bid to hold onto some large Jewish settlement blocs on West Bank land captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
He also backed Sharon's denial of a right of return for Palestinians dispossessed in the 1948 war of Israel's creation, and millions of their descendants. The Jewish state says a refugee influx would mean demographic suicide.
Qurie, in a statement issued by his office, said harming Arafat would end any hope of Israeli-Palestinian peace and open a new chapter in more than three years of violence.
Israel accuses the Palestinian president of fomenting bloodshed, an allegation he denies.
Sharon said he had informed Bush of his decision about Arafat during a meeting at the White House last week in which the president voiced support for his plan to evacuate all Jewish settlements in Gaza and four of the 120 in the West Bank.
But Powell told ABC's "Nightline" late on Friday: "The president made it clear that he would oppose any such attempts against Mr. Arafat."
In Jenin, Palestinian security sources said undercover troops shot at a car carrying two militants, killing them and a 16-year-old youth walking home from school.
An Israeli military source, giving a different account, said soldiers surrounded a house where militants planning a suicide bombing were holed up and killed two wanted men and their teenage "accomplice" in an exchange of fire.
One of the militants belonged to al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, part of Arafat's Fatah faction, and the other to the Islamic Jihad group, the Palestinian security sources said.
"The Palestinian government strongly condemns the continued practice of state terror against our people by the Israeli occupation forces," Qurie's office said in a statement.
At least 30 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces since Israel assassinated Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi, Gaza leader of the militant Hamas group a week ago.