Palestinians begin manhunt for Popular Front's leader

Israel skeptical of effort to arrest assassins of Cabinet member Zeevi

October 23, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The Palestinian Authority, in a rare and risky move against a prominent radical, said yesterday that it intends to hunt down and arrest the head of the militant group that took responsibility for the assassination last week of an Israeli Cabinet member.

If Palestinian officials are serious about going after Ahmed Saadat, the newly elected secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, it could spark turmoil among radical militias and their growing legions of followers. But the Palestinian Authority may be forced to ignore threats of internal strife to prove that it is serious about eradicating terrorism and fulfilling its promise to arrest the killers of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.

Both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli army are after the same man.

"I guess it comes down to who gets to him first," said Samir Rantissi, an aide to the Palestinian minister of information.

Saadat, 48, is accused by Israel of orchestrating Zeevi's killing in retaliation for Israel's assassination in August of Saadat's predecessor, Mustafa Zibri, known as Abu Ali Mustafa. The Palestinians say they want Saadat because his group's actions violated a cease-fire.

Saadat took over the Popular Front on Oct. 3, vowing to continue an armed insurrection against Israel. A resident of el Bireh, a suburb of the West Bank city of Ramallah, he has been jailed numerous times by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. His family became refugees after the creation of Israel in 1948.

Palestinian officials say that Saadat has vowed to elude them, much as he escaped detection by the Israelis in the late 1980s and early '90s when they occupied all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Rantissi said Palestinian security officials will work to find him and others responsible for the killing.

But Israeli officials doubt the Palestinian Authority's seriousness and sent tanks and artillery last week into Palestinian cities. At least 23 Palestinians have died in the five-day offensive, the largest military action in years.

"All we have to go on is past history, and past history proves that the Palestinian Authority has not been able to arrest anybody and put them in jail," said Israeli government spokesman Dan Seaman. The army said special forces units have joined combat troops in the search.

The Palestinian Authority charges that Israel is using Zeevi's assassination as an excuse to topple Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and has expressed doubt that the Popular Front members who gunned down Zeevi are in the West Bank.

Israel has arrested four Israeli-Arabs reportedly linked to the assassination but has refused to divulge any details. Sources said that releasing the names of those arrested would hinder the investigation.

Palestinians allege that Israel is keeping the arrests quiet to keep up its military offensive. "We don't know if the persons who did this are from the West Bank or holders of Israeli identity cards," said Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Arafat.

Erekat said that if Zeevi's killers are in the West Bank, "they will be arrested and brought to Palestinian justice." He said they would not be extradited to Israel, one of the Israeli army's conditions for withdrawing from Palestinian cities.

The Palestinians have reportedly rounded up more than 30 Popular Front members as well as representatives from other militant groups, but have not divulged names or charges.

Palestinians could view the arrest of someone of Saadat's stature as tantamount to cooperation with Israel. The order for Saadat's arrest, issued by Arafat's West Bank security chief, Jibril Rajoub, was quickly denounced by several Palestinian factions.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday that his troops would not release their hold on six West Bank towns until the Palestinians turn over the militants who assassinated Zeevi.

Thousands of Israeli demonstrators in Jerusalem demanded that Sharon expel Arafat and bring down the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli tanks rumbled deeper into Palestinian towns, setting off street battles for a fifth day. In Tulkarm, a 65-year-old Palestinian man was killed, Palestinians said.

In the Aida refugee camp outside Bethlehem, a heavy gunbattle erupted as tanks rolled in. In Ramallah, tanks fired shells as they moved forward and were met by Palestinian fire.

In Nablus, a Palestinian man was killed and a second man critically wounded when their car exploded, Palestinian witnesses and medical officials said. The circumstances of the blast were not immediately clear.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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