Arafat detains militant leaders

U.S., Israel sought arrests

group said it killed Cabinet official

January 16, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Bowing to pressure from Israel and the United States, Palestinian authorities detained yesterday the leader of the militant group that claimed responsibility for assassinating an Israeli Cabinet minister in October.

Ahmed Saadat, who heads the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was being held in a Ramallah jail last night, Palestinian sources and faction leaders said. They said Iyad Ulma, who heads the PFLP's military wing, also was arrested.

Israeli officials accuse the two of plotting the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, who was gunned down Oct. 17 outside his hotel room in East Jerusalem, and have demanded repeatedly that they and the gunmen be arrested and turned over to Israel for trial.

The arrests came hours after two Israelis - an elderly man and a woman on her way to a wedding - were shot and killed by Palestinian militants in the West Bank.

The detentions could be an attempt by the Palestinian Authority to stave off a military response by Israel and save a faltering cease-fire. But the authority's actions could spark a violent backlash among Palestinians. Past attempts to arrest leaders of militant factions have led to violence and forced police to negotiate with extremist groups to keep the peace.

A PFLP leader, Abdel Rahim Mallouh, told the Reuters news agency last night that the arrests are dangerous and border on treason by the Palestinian Authority. "This shows that the authority has caved in to U.S. and Israeli political pressure," he said.

Saadat was appointed to the Popular Front's secretary-general post after his predecessor, Mustafa Zibri, known as Abu Ali Mustafa, was assassinated in August by an Israeli missile strike on his office in Ramallah. The PFLP said Zeevi was killed in retaliation.

Israeli officials said they could not confirm the arrests and reacted with disbelief, saying that Palestinian militants are often jailed in unguarded hotel rooms or apartments, and are held only long enough to make it appear as though there is a crackdown.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has used his military might to prevent Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from leaving Ramallah and has vowed to keep him a virtual prisoner in the West Bank city until Zeevi's killers are caught.

The gunman and his accomplice remain at large, and Arafat has been in Ramallah for 41 days amid signs that he is beginning to grow uncomfortable with his inability to travel. The militant group Hamas said yesterday that it would abandon its pledge to halt suicide attacks in Israel if Arafat is not allowed to leave Ramallah.

A senior Palestinian official denied last night any link between Arafat's situation and Saadat's arrest. "Police had been pursing him [Saadat] for a long time," the official said.

Palestinian security officials had said in the past that they would not arrest Saadat because he is a political official.

A militant wing of Arafat's Fatah faction claimed responsibility for the killing yesterday of Avi Boaz, who ventured into the Palestinian-controlled city of Bethlehem and apparently was abducted at a police checkpoint and later killed.

Boaz, 72, who was born in what is now Israel and holds a U.S. passport, visited the Palestinian territories daily, using his foreign passport to skirt laws barring Israelis from Palestinian areas. Boaz, an engineer, lived in the Jewish settlement of Maaleh Adumim with his 28-year-old daughter, and had an office at Bethlehem's northern entrance.

Boaz had Palestinian friends in the area, where he bought inexpensive building supplies for his contracting business. Officials said he picked up a Palestinian friend yesterday and drove to the village of Beit Jala, where he was stopped at a Palestinian police guard post.

Lt. Col. Sharon Levi, an Israeli army liaison officer who deals with Palestinian officials, said Boaz spoke to the Palestinian officer who stopped him. Four Palestinian civilians who were with the four Palestinian officers ordered his companion out of the car, then dragged him out and beat him when he refused. The Palestinian civilians then got into Boaz's Rover convertible and forced him to drive to the village of Beit Sahour.

Israeli officials said Boaz was shot up to 20 times in the head and torso as he sat in the driver's seat, his car parked near a soccer field. Levi accused Palestinian police of watching the abduction but doing nothing to stop it.

Israeli officials said Boaz's Palestinian companion reported the killing, and that Palestinian police retrieved the body and car and returned them to Israeli authorities. Police said they found his U.S. passport in the car.

The Palestinian governor of the Bethlehem district, Madani Mohamed el-Madani, disputed that account, saying his police found Boaz's body shortly after Israeli officials asked for help in locating the missing man. He said Boaz was killed because of unpaid debts.

"Regardless of the motive, this is an abominable crime and we have been instructed by our president to find the perpetrators," he said.

An Islamic militant group, the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, claimed responsibility for the killing and said it was in retaliation for Israeli violence.

Hours later, two Palestinian gunmen stopped a vehicle at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Givat Zeev, north of Jerusalem, and opened fire with automatic weapons, hitting Yoela Chen, 45, and her aunt, Rachel Heine, 70, said Gil Kleiman, an Israeli police spokesman. Chen was killed and Heine seriously hurt, with gunshot wounds to the chest. The gunmen escaped.

Israeli television reported that the PFLP was behind the shootings, but no group had publicly claimed responsibility last night.

Leaders of other militant groups said they would continue to adhere to Arafat's call Dec. 16 for a cease-fire. But the Israeli army reported more than 10 shooting incidents yesterday in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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