Both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times lead with U.S. envoy Anthony C. Zinni's efforts to coax Israeli and Palestinian leaders toward a cease-fire. The Washington Post buries its Zinni story and instead leads with news that a U.S. diplomat has been arrested and detained in Yugoslavia.
As Zinni concluded his first round of talks, Israel pulled out of all West Bank towns (except Bethlehem), ending a 72-hour occupation of Ramallah, where Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat effectively has been cooped up for three months. Zinni said that he arrived with a "vision and a plan" from Bush and "that we are going to identify the mechanism that would allow us to implement that plan."
Relying on a "senior Bush administration official" the NYT suggests that the White House has grown increasingly skeptical that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had a coherent strategy for ending the violence. Bush reached "a turning point of sorts" last week, when Sharon said that his aim was "to increase the number of losses on the other side."
The LAT's choice Arafat quote is that he hopes "President Bush, the son," will complete the peace process that his father began at the 1991 Madrid peace conference. For the NYT, Arafat is pleased that Bush's envoy has come to meet with him in Ramallah, apparently rejecting Sharon's effort to marginalize him: "We waited for him so long," said Arafat.
Some Ramallah residents were hopeful that Israel's withdrawal would lead to a cease-fire after 17 and a half months of fighting and about 1,400 dead Arabs and Jews, reports the LAT. Elsewhere in the story, the LAT keeps a death tally, noting that since Israeli tanks rolled into Ramallah on Monday, 12 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were killed. But it misses the opportunity to break down the 1,400 number. In a slight discrepancy, the NYT cites 13 dead Palestinians and does not mention any Israeli deaths from the Ramallah battle.
Both stories report that in Gaza a Palestinian mother and her four children were killed when a mine exploded under their donkey cart. Each side is blaming the other.
The Post story focuses on the domestic criticism of Sharon's tactics. "Top Israeli officials" said that the offensive did not succeed in arresting several thousand Palestinian boys and men. "Nobody in the Shin Bet [Israel's domestic security service] thinks these operations will stop terrorism," the official said. The NYT also suggests that public opinion in Israel is starting to shift: A recent poll indicated that a majority support a Palestinian state, or "even the evacuation of Jewish settlements in Gaza."
The Post leads with the arrest of a U.S. diplomat and a former Yugoslav general at a restaurant just outside Belgrade. They were charged with espionage. Allegedly, the Yugoslav general gave secret documents to the American—documents that could help in the prosecution against former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic at the U.N. War Crimes tribunal in the Netherlands. The American, identified as John David Neighbor, was bundled into a van, roughed up, and held incommunicado for 15 hours. The State Department has protested the arrest, and a diplomatic row has ensued.
Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said that he disagreed with Bush's 30 percent steel tariff decision, bolstering his image as loose cannon and potentially landing him in hot water with the White House, fronts the NYT. The remarks, ostensibly off-the-record, were made to a crowd of 200 at a Council on Foreign Relations dinner in New York on Wednesday. Wednesday? Today's Papers wonders why the NYT waited until Saturday to report an event that occurred four days ago. The story offers no explanation for the delay, but the article does add this disclaimer: "Some members of the staff of The New York Times are also members of the Council on Foreign Relations. But this article is based on information obtained independently."
Tipper Gore adds to the speculation that she'll run for her husband's old Senate seat in Tennessee, fronts the Post, telling friends that she's seriously considering a run. She cut short a weekend in California to return home to Tennessee to discuss the possibility of joining her friend, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in the Senate. Donna Brazile, Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager, said she talked to the former vice president Thursday night, who told her, "She's seriously considering it."
John Walker Lindh's lawyers argue that their client was afraid to leave the Taliban's frontline and never rejoiced in the terrorist attacks on America, fronts the LAT. According to the Post, which runs the story on A15, Lindh actually wanted to quit fighting for al-Qaida after he learned of the Sept. 11 attacks. In court papers release on Friday, Lindh's lawyers are also asking the government to turn over evidence that might bolster their defense.
Three drug trafficking stories find their way into this morning's papers: one in the LAT and two in the WP. The LAT fronts the collapse of Mexico's "invincible" drug cartel. On March 9, kingpin Benjamin Arellano Felix was captured, less than a month after police gunned down his younger brother Ramon. The demise of the ruthless Arellano Felix gang, which controlled the Tijuana-San Diego corridor, is a hopeful sign that Mexico's President Vicente Fox is making good on his promise to crack down on drug trafficking.
Still, the death of Ramon could have been a hit, carried out by police on behalf of the rival drug boss whom Ramon was in town to kill. One Baja official responded to the enthusiasm over the capture of Benjamin with: "Let me answer that question with a question. Will the capture in any way affect demand for drugs in the United States? Doubtful."
The Post's stories take a look at the poppy economy in Afghanistan, the leading opium-producing country in the world. In one story, the Post reports that Kandahar's drug trade is still thriving, despite the effort by international officials to shutdown "Narcotics Street." Their other story profiles 73-year-old Abdul Sattar, the man in charge of the anti-drug agency in the largest poppy-growing province in Afghanistan. Sattar just smiles when one of his watchmen, a farmer with about 125 acres of poppies, explains the agricultural realities of a four-year drought: "If we cultivate wheat and corn and tomatoes, we can't get the money back that we paid to plant it." "Right now, some of my friends are upset with me," Sattar concedes. "I have many friends and relatives growing poppies. Even some of my brothers grow it."
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