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Europe in no hurry to freeze assets of charities

PARIS — PARIS - Europe reacted tepidly to President Bush's call to freeze the assets of four European charities said by the administration to be sending cash to Palestinian militants.

That sets the stage for another trans-Atlantic rift over Middle East policy.

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Rudolf Gollia, a spokesman for Austria's Interior Ministry, said the country's counterterrorism agency had already investigated one of the groups, the Palestinian Association in Austria, and had found no evidence of wrongdoing. "Under Austrian law, there were no grounds for punitive action," Gollia told the Austria Press Agency late on Friday, after Bush had spoken.

Both French and European Union officials said that any decision on freezing assets would probably be made jointly by European foreign ministers over the next few weeks and would require a thorough review of the charities' activities.

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The ministers are scheduled to meet in Italy on the first weekend in September.

Bush demanded that the assets of five charities be frozen along with those of six top officials of Hamas, the Palestinian organization whose military wing has claimed responsibility for the suicide attack on a Jerusalem bus on Tuesday that killed 21 people. Four of those organizations are based in Europe: the French-based Committee for Welfare and Relief for Palestine; the Palestinian Relief Association in Switzerland; the Palestinian Relief and Development Fund, or Interpal, with headquarters in Britain; and the Palestinian Association in Austria.

The fifth charity, the Sanabil Association for Relief and Development, is based in Lebanon.

Bush's demand highlights a stark difference between how the United States and Europe, with its large and growing Muslim population, have dealt with Palestinian activists.

The European Union has labeled Hamas' military wing a terrorist organization.

But the question of freezing assets of the group's political wing remains divisive, let alone freezing the assets of charities that many Europeans consider vital to providing services to the Palestinian people.

While individual European countries are free to bar organizations unilaterally, since the war on terrorism began they have agreed informally to operate jointly.

In part that is meant to improve efficiency - with the coordinated European banking systems, any freeze on assets in one country could easily be sidestepped by transferring those assets to another - but there is also the wish to maintain a unified Middle East policy.


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