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Group attacks Egypt FM in Jerusalem
( 2003-12-23 09:06) (Agencies)

Muslim extremists attacked the Egyptian foreign minister as he tried to pray at a key Jerusalem holy site Monday, jostling him, shouting abuse and overshadowing his efforts to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israeli policemen protect Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher (R) as he is assaulted by Palestinians while praying in Jerusalem's Old City on December 22, 2003. Witnesses said he fell unconscious after the attack but Israel's ambulance service said he was in good condition after being taken to hospital for treatment.   [Reuters]
Ahmed Maher, 68, appeared badly shaken as bodyguards and Israeli police whisked him out of the compound, while protesters hurled shoes and shouted at him. The guards supported Maher by his shoulders as he grimaced in pain and clutched his chest.

Witnesses heard him gasping, "I'm going to choke, I'm going to choke," as he left the compound in a bedlam of shoving and shouting through a gate above the Western Wall, a Jewish holy site.

Emergency physician Rivka Kaplan, who examined Maher at the scene, said he had "a choking feeling. ... We did an electrocardiogram and everything was normal."

Israeli rescue workers treated him for a half-hour before he was transferred by limousine to Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital, where he was listed in good condition.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke with Maher by telephone while the Egyptian was in the hospital and wished him well, a senior U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in a phone call to Maher at the hospital, quipped, "I understand you will stay with us a while." Maher left the hospital in a motorcade for the airport four hours after the incident and returned to Cairo.

Earlier in the day, Sharon indicated to Maher that Israel would respond positively to a cease-fire by Palestinian militants, a senior Israeli official said. In the past Israel has said a truce was not enough and that militant groups must be dismantled, as called for in the U.S.-backed "road map" plan.

Powell also talked by phone to Sharon and Shalom, getting a brief report from them as he did from Maher on Egyptian efforts to move the road map along, the U.S. official said.

The attack on Maher was a rare assault on an official from a Muslim country at the site known to Muslims as Haram as-Sharif, revered as the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Jews honor the site as the Temple Mount, which housed the biblical Jewish Temples.

Witnesses said the protesters, several dozen in number, were members of a small extremist group called "Islamic Liberation Movement." They shouted at Maher, "You're not welcome here!" and charged that Egypt was helping Israel oppress the Palestinians. "You are collaborating with the killers of Muslims," one shouted.

Some threw shoes. Muslims remove their shoes at the entrance to mosques. In Islamic culture, showing someone the bottom of your foot or the sole of your shoe is a great insult.

In Cairo, President Hosni Mubarak's office issued a statement denouncing the "irresponsible" attack, pledging that it "will not derail Egypt's efforts to achieve a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli talks, with the effective participation of other peace-loving partners."

An Israeli policeman lies on the ground as he stimulate wounded people from a chemical attack during a drill held at the Ben Gurion International airport close to Tel Aviv.  [AFP]
The Palestinian Authority ! whose leaders had not been scheduled to meet with Maher during this trip ! also denounced the attack.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms the assault on Mr. Maher. Mr. Maher's visit to Israel was fully coordinated with Palestinian leadership, and the aim of the visit is to break the vicious cycle of violence and revive the peace process," said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who met with Maher a few hours earlier, said the incident showed "there are still extremist elements who oppose any peace efforts between Arabs and Israel."

In another violent incident Monday, a Palestinian threw a grenade at Israelis soldiers in Gaza during a firefight, killing two, the army said. The army said the attacker was killed.

In a telephone call to The Associated Press, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a group loosely linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, and the military wing of the radical Islamic Jihad group took joint responsibility for the attack.

Maher's visit was his first to Israel in more than two years. In 1979, Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but relations have deteriorated during three years of a bloody Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In recent weeks Egypt ! along with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia ! has been trying in vain to coax a cease-fire declaration from Palestinian militant groups. Part of the problem, officials close to the talks have said, has been the inability to assure the militants that Israel would not continue to target them.

In a potential shift that could breathe new life into the efforts, Sharon indicated to Maher that Israel would halt activity against the militants if there is a cease-fire. "We will respond to quiet with quiet," said the senior source in the prime minister's office.

The source said the meeting went well, and that Maher indicated the talks could lead to a summit between Sharon and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ! something Mubarak has avoided since Sharon, a career hard-liner, came to power in 2001.

After meeting with Shalom, Maher told a news conference he was optimistic the cease-fire talks with the Palestinian factions would be successful and that the road map could be revived.

"Let's start this road which will lead us to a solution and to peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, which will be beneficial to the whole region," Maher said. "So, I come out from here encouraged, but the encouragement needs to be followed up by actions. We hope to see actions from both sides as soon as possible."

The road map is a blueprint for ending three years of violence and establishing a Palestinian state in 2005.

Under the road map, Palestinians must dismantle violent groups, and Israel has to halt construction in settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and take down unauthorized outposts. Neither side has carried out these obligations.

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