UN: Mideast Has Seen a 'Bad Month'

The United Nations expressed concern Friday that Israel might abandon the road map peace plan as its conflict with the Palestinians heightened in past weeks.

"It has been a bad month in the Middle East," Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Kieran Prendergast said at a monthly meeting of the UN Security council on the situation in the Middle East. "We have seen a marked increase in the number of casualties on both sides and a resumption of suicide bombing."

Prendergast said the first suicide bombing since March killed 16 Israelis and injured more than 100 on August 31 in southern Israel. On September 15, an Israel Defense Forces military operation killed 11 Palestinians in Nablus, including an 11-year-old girl, he added.

Prendergast said the UN was concerned that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was not complying with the road map, worked out by the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the United States. He expressed concern that Sharon may keep Israeli settlers in the West Bank long after a proposed Gaza withdrawal.

The road map endorses the establishment of a Palestinian state next year after a series of steps and security measures are implemented by both sides.

Prendergast said since he briefed the council five weeks ago, 80 Palestinians and 17 Israelis have been killed.

"The widespread destruction of Palestinian property by Israeli forces raises concern about collective punishment, and fuels more violence and bloodshed," he added.

The death toll since the eruption of the Palestinian intifada against Israel in September 2000 has reached 3,633 Palestinians and 966 Israelis. More than 35,000 Palestinians and 6,000 Israelis have been injured.

Prendergast said the Quartet will meet informally next week at U.N. headquarters on the sidelines of the General Assembly ministerial debate to discuss the withdrawal initiative and review the situation on the ground.

'Crux of the matter'Israel's U.N. Mission was closed Friday because of the Jewish holidays, and calls for comment were not answered.

But the Palestinian U.N. observer, Nasser Al-Kidwa, said Sharon's apparent abandonment of the road map was "the crux of the matter."

"We have been saying that for a long time that Sharon actually wants to have a unilateral disengagement plan as a substitute for the road map," Al-Kidwa told The Associated Press.

"Some people thought ... with good intentions, that we can take this initiative, turn it into something positive as part of the road map. Now, this turned out to be too optimistic," he said, describing Prendergast's comments as "reasonable" and having raised a "serious question about the way forward."

Al-Kidwa said the fact that the Quartet was gathering informally next week rather than holding a formal meeting was an indication of the discord.

Prendergast also took aim at Israel's policy of targeted killings of militant leaders, the continuing work on constructing a controversial barrier in the West Bank and Gaza and that its continued building of settlements was a violation of its obligations under international and the peace plan.

But he also stressed the Palestinian Authority "has failed to make progress on its obligation to take immediate action on the ground to end the violence and combat."

Stressing that the Palestinians must also work with urgency to crack down on the spate of suicide attacks that routinely target civilians, Prendergast also reiterated the U.N.'s call for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to "institute tangible reform of the security services."

"Real progress cannot be postponed any longer," said Prendergast.

Several council members said they felt his briefing was balanced.