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Arafat offers talks; Arabs go to work

After an Israeli offer, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said Sunday he is ready for peace talks, while about 6,000 Palestinians returned to jobs in Israel for the first time in a month.

In an abrupt turnaround last week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said contacts were already under way with Palestinian officials, adding, "We are ready to enter negotiations at any time."

Sharon had previously conditioned talks on a crackdown on violent Palestinian groups responsible for attacks on Israelis.

Asked about Sharon's remarks, Arafat told reporters he would accept an offer for talks.

"There is no official communication, but we are ready," he said after meeting a delegation of Greek lawmakers at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Talks on the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan have been stalled for weeks because of Palestinian bombing attacks and Israeli military operations, along with the Palestinians' inability to form a stable government.

Arafat has often said he is ready to talk peace, but Israel and the United States are boycotting him, saying he is tainted by terrorism. They insist on dealing with an empowered prime minister.

On Sunday, Arafat formally asked Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia to form a government, and Qureia said he accepted. Palestinian officials said they hoped the work could be completed in a few days.

Arafat's first choice for premier, Mahmoud Abbas, lasted only four months before resigning Sept. 6 after repeated clashes with Arafat over who would run the Palestinian security forces.

The Israelis announced early Sunday that they would permit about 15,000 Palestinians to enter the country for work. A military announcement referred to "confidence-building measures" decided by the government.

Before dawn, about 6,200 workers over the age of 35 crowded the Erez crossing point from Gaza, submitted to strict security checks and went to jobs in Israel.

However, Israeli motorists lined up at gas stations as Israel braced for a nationwide strike today to protest the government's planned economic changes in the pension system. The retirement age is to be raised to 67 for all workers, up from the current 65 for men and 60 for women.

A wide range of public services, including buses and trains, garbage collection, post offices, banks and seaports were expected to be affected by the open-ended strike called by the Histadrut, Israel's large labor federation.

_ Information from the New York Times was used in this report.