Israel widens offensive on West Bank

Palestinian security office is attacked in hunt for fugitives

Fighters on both sides hurt

Top aide to Arafat among those Israel targets for capture

April 02, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli troops expanded their offensive into more West Bank cities yesterday, engaged in gunbattles that wounded fighters on both sides and early this morning attacked the Palestinian security headquarters in Ramallah, where hundreds of heavily armed gunmen were said to have taken refuge.

Israeli troops fired tank shells and machine guns at the security headquarters before dawn today, after Palestinians inside apparently ignored a demand for their surrender, Palestinian officials said.

They said Palestinian security chief Jibril Rajoub had given orders to the men inside to resist.

A senior Israeli security source said earlier that "many fugitives" were in the building, and other wanted gunmen were believed to be with besieged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the remains of his office compound.

"We are not going to leave Ramallah without arresting these fugitives," said the intelligence source, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

The wanted men include Arafat's West Bank intelligence chief, an indication that Arafat's top aides are no longer immune from being targeted by Israeli forces.

Palestinian officials initially denied that any wanted men were hiding in the security complex or with Arafat.

"I don't know if this is the end of the Palestinian Authority or the Palestinian leader," said Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator and an aide to Arafat. "But it is the end of common sense and the beginning of madness."

Last night, an Israeli policeman stopped a suspicious car at a checkpoint near the city's center and the driver detonated an explosive, killing himself and the police officer.

It was the sixth bombing in Israel in six days, attacks that led to the Israeli military operations in the West Bank.

In Washington, President Bush repeated his desire that Arafat order a halt to suicide bomb attacks, while the State Department criticized Israel's military actions in Ramallah.

"There will never be peace so long as there is terror, and all of us must fight terror," Bush said at the White House. "I'd like to see Chairman Arafat denounce the terrorist activities that are taking place, the constant attacks."

Several Israeli Cabinet ministers urged Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to accelerate the military campaign, before Washington pressures him to pull back. Military officers said they are settling in for a battle that could last months.

Israeli tanks drove into the West Bank city of Tulkarm, while others surrounded Nablus and Jenin. Troops moved deeper into Bethlehem, and soldiers and Palestinian gunmen exchanged fire throughout the day on the streets of Ramallah.

The army fired on the headquarters of the Medical Relief Committees, organizations that run Palestinian hospitals and paramedic services. People were forced outside and searched.

Collaborator suspects killed

Eight Jewish settlers were wounded in an attack near Beit El, east of Ramallah, and an Israeli border policeman was shot and killed near Bethlehem.

Palestinian militants in three cities executed 10 men suspected of collaborating with Israel, killings considered evidence that Arafat's security forces have lost control over many militias.

Seven of the suspected collaborators were dragged from jail cells in Tulkarm and shot, their bodies left on a street as onlookers cheered.

In Beit Jala, on the outskirts of Bethlehem, five people from Great Britain, France and Japan protesting the Israeli occupation were wounded by shrapnel, when Israeli soldiers fired near their feet as they approached a tank.

A Palestinian television cameraman working for the Associated Press also was wounded in Bethlehem, the third journalist to be injured in two days.

Israeli officials have declared Ramallah a closed military zone and have demanded that all foreigners leave, including reporters.

"If you go into the fire, don't complain when you get burned," Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit said at a news conference, dismissing complaints that many civilians were being injured.

"We have to use a hard hand. We shall not give in, regardless of the price."

Israeli officials focused much of their attention on Ramallah, where they said the men inside Arafat's office included the gunmen who murdered an Israeli Cabinet minister last year and officials responsible for a shipload of arms seized in January.

Israeli officials suspect that the men inside the five-story security headquarters include figures responsible for sending suicide bombers on their missions, as well as Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank leader of Arafat's Fatah faction.

Until about a month ago, Barghouti seemed off-limits for arrest because of his popularity in the West Bank and because Israeli officials considered him something with whom they could negotiate.

But his name apparently rose to the top of Israel's "wanted" list after the latest bombings, many of them carried out by the Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

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