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Oct 30 - Nov 05, 2000

Palestinians, Arabs slam US Congress resolution

The Palestinians on Thursday blasted the US Congress for issuing a resolution in support of Israel and accused it of hurting peace by taking Israel's side in a wave of the worst clashes in years.

"The Palestinian Legislative Council condemns the American position, namely the shameful US Congress that is biased towards Israel," the PLC said in a statement after a meeting in Ramallah attended by 16 out of 87 lawmakers.

The rest were unable to attend due to an Israeli closure barring Palestinians from travelling between Gaza and the West Bank and between some West Bank cities. The absentees were updated by telephone on the proceedings.

By a 365-30 vote Wednesday, the US Congress expressed "its solidarity with the state and people of Israel," and condemned the Palestinian leadership "for encouraging the violence and doing so little for so long to stop it, resulting in the senseless loss of life."

Palestinian minister Nabil Amr called the resolution unethical and said it could torpedo peace efforts which have already been devastated by the bloodiest violence in years which has cost the lives of 133 Palestinians.

"The blind obedience of the American administration towards Israel would lead to the destruction of the peace process in the Middle East," said Amr, who is also a legislator.

Palestinian lawmaker Hassan Asfour accused the US Congress of being more Zionist than Israel's parliament.

"In the Knesset, there is a large opposition to Israel's policy but at the Congress, there is a consensus on supporting war against the Palestinian people," he said.

"There should be a genuine change for the American monopoly of the peace process to guarantee that it is going in line with UN Security Council resolutions," Asfour said.

The PLC also called on the United Nations, Europe and Russia to play a greater role in putting troubled Middle East peacemaking back on track.

US, Jordan seal historic free-trade pact

The United States signed a free-trade agreement with Jordan on Tuesday, giving a much-needed economic boost to a critical ally in President Bill Clinton's drive to end the violence in the Middle East. The agreement, signed by lead US and Jordanian negotiators at a White House ceremony attended by Clinton and Jordan's King Abdullah, will phase out virtually all tariffs on textiles, farm goods including wheat and corn, and other products within 10 years.

In addition, the pact includes precedent-setting provisions aimed at protecting workers' rights and the environment. Their inclusion was a victory for US labour and environmental groups, key constituencies of Democratic presidential hopeful Al Gore, who is locked in a tight race with Republican nominee George W. Bush in the Nov. 7 election.

"Nowhere are the benefits of trade more critically needed than in the Middle East. By opening markets we can help ease poverty that makes peace hard to achieve and harder still to sustain," Clinton said at the ceremony, where US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky and Jordan's Deputy Prime Minister Mohammad Halaykah signed the pact.

Abdullah said the pact would bolster the Jordanian economy and help him "pursue our cherished goal of peace in our region." The US Congress is expected to vote on the pact next year, and Clinton urged them to support it.

The United States views Jordan as a key ally in the Middle East peace process, which has unravelled since fighting erupted between Israel and the Palestinians last month.

Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, has denounced Israel for recent violence in which at least 131 people have been killed the vast majority of them Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.

Nevertheless, Washington credits King Abdullah with playing a "constructive role" in the crisis and has praised his "strong stance" against terrorism, an administration official said.

Arab Leaders demands UN protection force

Arab leaders gave a boost to the Palestinian uprising on Sunday with their political and financial clout, but stopped short of a boycott of Israel, which still hit back by declaring "time out" in the peace process.

The freeze, announced following Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's weekly cabinet meeting, will last until violence ends in the Palestinian territories, government spokesman Nachman Shai said.

"If they (the Palestinians) stop the violence, that will be helpful," Shai said, on a day in which another four Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops, bringing the death toll in three weeks to 132.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat responded angrily to Barak's time out, telling reporters that the Israeli prime minister could "go to hell".

Leaders from the 22-member Arab League, except for Libya which walked out on Saturday, called for the United Nations to set up a protection force for the Palestinians and an international tribunal for Israeli "war criminals".

Kuwait parliament to tackle economic bills

Kuwait's parliament reopens on Saturday to tackle a series of essential economic bills, but the highest fiscal surplus in two decades is certain to cast serious doubts on the urgency of reforms, MPs and economists say.

Economic reforms and imposition of fees were urgent in the past because of the critical situation of the treasury. But after the rise in oil prices and boasting a surplus, I don't think they will have priority, MP Adnand Abdel Samad told AFP.

The increase in revenues may reduce the level of urgency and attention, added Samad, a veteran Islamist MP, long associated with parliament's finance and economic committee.

After years of huge deficits following the 1991 liberation from Iraqi occupation, the oil-rich emirate's last fiscal year which ended June 30 posted a surplus of more than $3.9 billion.

It is expecting an even higher surplus this year due to the soaring price of oil which contributes more than 90 per cent of public revenues.

 Japan lends Iran $69m for power project

Japan said on Thursday it was extending a $69-million loan to help complete an Iranian power project, ahead of next week's visit to Tokyo by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

The state-run Japan Bank for International Cooperation said it would lend $69 million for the Masjid-e Soleiman hydroelectric power project in southwest Iran.

The project, run by the Iran Water and Power Resources Development Co., involves the construction of a rock-fill dam and a 2,000-megawatt underground power plant in Iran's Karoon river basin.

The official Japanese bank lent 38.6 billion yen for the first phase of the ambitious project in June 1993, and it said in a statement that the new loan aimed to help finance the remaining work.

The announcement comes just before Khatami arrives on Tuesday to pay the first official visit to Japan by a top Iranian leader in 42 years. He will hold talks with Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori during his four-day visit.

Oil above $33 as US data deepens supply fears

Oil prices were higher and firmly entrenched above $33 a barrel on Wednesday as key US oil data increased the fear of a supply crunch in winter heating oil supplies.

Prices were also buoyed by Middle East tensions given a truce agreed in Egypt last week has so far done little to quell the violence between Israelis and the Palestinians.

US benchmark light sweet crude futures for December were up 15 cents at $33.52 a barrel at 0530 GMT, after closing 39 cents lower at $33.37 in New York.

Tunisia breaks ties with Israel

Tunisia has decided to break ties with Israel, closing their respective interests sections in Tel Aviv and Tunis with immediate effect, state radio reported on Sunday, quoting the foreign ministry.

The move was decided because of "the dangerous and bloody escalation resulting from Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people" and "the growing number of dead and wounded among unarmed Palestinian civilians".

It came before a final statement from the Arab summit in Cairo that called for Arab states to take measures against the Jewish state, in response to the violent unrest in the Palestinian territories.

The foreign ministry statement said Tunis considered the development of its relations with Israel should depend on the progress or otherwise of the Middle East peace process.

Oman looks to gas to diversify its economy

Gulf oil producer Oman is aiming to lure foreign investment into its gas sector in a bid to diversify its economy, Oil Minister Mohammad bin Hamad bin Seif al-Rumhy said on Monday.

"The gas is available and we are certain that the investment conditions in Oman would be such that the economics of gas-based industries would prove to be very attractive," Rumhy said of the non-OPEC producer.

Oman has proven gas reserves of 22 trillion cubic feet (tcf) and unproven reserves of 45 tcf, the oil minister said at an energy conference in Muscat.

Iran trade swings to a surplus with Saudi

Iran's trade surplus with Saudi Arabia last year was 6.9 million dollars on the back of a 32-plus per cent rise in exports to the kingdom, the official IRNA news agency reported Saturday.

Customs officials said that cathode copper and carpets topped the list as Saudi Arabia accounted for 1.5 per cent of Iran's non-oil exports in 1999, marking a 32.3 per cent rise over the previous year.

In 1998, Iran ran a 27.3 million dollar trade deficit with the kingdom, IRNA said, adding that Saudi Arabia had moved up from 19th to 16th among the top importers of Iranian goods.

Benzene, white cement and apples were next on the list of Iranian exports to the kingdom, the agency said.

Syria, China aim to boost two-way trade

Syria and China decided to boost two-way trade during a visit Saturday by a Chinese economic delegation, the official news agency SANA reported.

The Chinese announced in talks with Syria's deputy economic and foreign trade minister, Fuad Sayyed, that a six-million-dollar loan would soon be granted to Damascus for economic and technical assistance.

The aid will be handed over during a forthcoming visit to China by the Syrian deputy prime minister in charge of services, Naji Otri, a Chinese diplomatic source told AFP.

He said the two countries at their talks, led on the Chinese side by a senior foreign trade ministry official, also decided to promote exchanges of visits by business delegations.

Two-way trade, worth around 200 million dollars in 1999, is tipped in favour of China, notably exports of its electronic goods.

Iraqis sell their food to buy necessities

Ordinary Iraqis are reduced to selling their food rations to pay for basics such as shoes in the country's depressed economy, the senior Baghdad-based UN official reported.

"The fact is that people have become so poor in some cases, they can't even afford to eat the food that they are given free because for many of them the food ration represents the major part of their income," Tun Myat, the UN humanitarian coordinator said on Thursday.

"They have to sell food in order to buy clothes and shoes or a hat or whatever other things they would require," he said.

Wages for a junior civil servant amount to only $2-$3 a month.

Prince Sultan in Malaysia

Saudi Defence Minister Prince Sultan Abdul Aziz Al-Saud flew in on a special jet on Tuesday for an eight-day visit, aimed at enhancing bilateral relations.

He was greeted at the airport by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the national news agency Bernama said.

The Saudi prince's visit is at Mahathir's invitation, and the two leaders are expected to discuss various issues especially the Middle East peace process and the Israel-Palestine conflict, Bernama said.

Thoraya Obaid

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan promoted a Saudi woman, Thoraya Obaid, on Wednesday to head United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Obaid, the first Saudi national to head a UN agency, will take over on January 1 from Nafis Sadik, who is retiring after 14 years as executive director of UNFPA.

Iraq may suspend oil exports

There is a "serious possibility" that Iraqi oil exports could be halted next week over Baghdad's demand that buyers pay in euros from November 1, the Middle East Economic Survey (MEES) reported Thursday.

The specialist newsletter said the United Nations had delayed deciding whether to approve Baghdad's instructions to its customers to pay for Iraqi oil in euros and no longer in US dollars.

Jordan to ditch dollar

Jordan has decided to stop using the US dollar in trade dealings with Iraq and replace it with the euro or another European currency, the state news agency INA reported on Wednesday.

The move is in response to Iraq's decision, announced in September, to stop trading with the US currency, head of the Jordan's Trade Centre in Baghdad Ma'an Al-Azizi told INA.