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Middle East: US President welcomes freedom for Yasser Arafat and wants him to act decisively towards achieving peace.

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ELEANOR HALL: A weekend of quiet diplomacy by United States President, George W. Bush, has led to the first breakthrough in the Middle East in months. President Bush personally brokered an agreement with the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to end the siege in Ramallah which has imprisoned Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, in his compound since last December and has confined him to a small windowless section of that compound now for almost a month. In return for his freedom, President Bush has demanded that Yasser Arafat do all he can to stop terrorist attacks against Israelis. From Washington, John Shovelan reports.


JOHN SHOVELAN: Rare progress in the Middle East today gave President Bush a sense of personal achievement.


GEORGE W. BUSH: This has been a hopeful day for the region.


JOHN SHOVELAN: It was also a hopeful day for White House diplomacy after Mr Bush intervened and helped broker a deal ending the siege of Yasser Arafat’s compound. But one good turn deserves another and President Bush says he expects a free Yasser Arafat to double his efforts at bringing an end to terrorist attacks on Israelis.


GEORGE W. BUSH: Chairman Arafat is now free to move around and free to lead and we expect him to do so. And this is a time for all of us to commit to fight terror and to promote peace in the Middle East. Chairman Arafat should now seize this opportunity to act decisively.


JOHN SHOVELAN: Over the weekend, from his ranch in Texas, Mr Bush held secret discussions with the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, and enjoyed his greatest achievement in trying to diffuse the crisis since his administration belatedly threw itself into the task just about one month ago. Officials say President Bush called Mr Sharon three times on Saturday and sent diplomats to negotiate directly with Mr Arafat. The Israeli Prime Minister will visit the White House in the next fortnight—a fifth meeting between Mr Bush and Mr Sharon. Mr Bush is yet to meet with Yasser Arafat.


GEORGE W. BUSH: I have called upon Mr Arafat in the past. I’ll continue to call upon Mr Arafat to lead. The other day somebody asked me, one time a while ago, he said, ‘Has he disappointed you? Has he lost your respect?’ I said, ‘He hadn’t earned my respect yet. He must earn my respect by leading.’


JOHN SHOVELAN: The deal to free Yasser Arafat allows for US and British non-military personnel to guard six Palestinians who are wanted by Israel on assassination charges and are being kept in Arafat’s headquarters at Ramallah. In return, Israeli troops would withdraw from Ramallah and Yasser Arafat would be allowed to leave his compound and move freely in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinian officials expect the siege imposed on Mr Arafat’s headquarters to be lifted by Tuesday.


GEORGE W. BUSH: All of us, the Arab nation, the Palestinians, the United States, the EU, must all continue on our collective effort to fight terror.


JOHN SHOVELAN: President Bush went out of his way to express sympathy for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and in the midst of military campaigns. This was a message delivered to President Bush by the Saudi Crown Prince in their tense meeting last Thursday.


GEORGE W. BUSH: And there are a lot of people who have no hope in the Middle East. I found there are a lot of Palestinians who wonder whether or not life is worth living and we’ve got to, as a world, have got to help them understand there is a positive life ahead for them and their children.


JOHN SHOVELAN: While a deal was struck to free Mr Arafat, the UN fact-finding mission to investigate what happened in the Jenin refugee camp, which was razed by Israeli tanks and bulldozers, still faces Israeli government obstruction. An emergency meeting of the UN Security Council gave Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, one more day to resolve the impasse. Members of the Security Council, however, say they are confident the issue will be resolved tomorrow.


John Shovelan, Washington.