Exile deal for Arafat is rejected

Sharon proposes that PLO leader go permanently, alone

Fighting rocks Bethlehem

U.S. aids surrender of hundreds trapped in Ramallah building

April 03, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - As fighting escalated in West Bank cities, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat could leave his battered compound in Ramallah if he agrees to permanent exile, an idea Palestinian officials immediately rejected.

Sharon said he proposed to a European Union envoy that diplomats fly Arafat out by helicopter.

Israeli troops and tanks have besieged Arafat since Friday in a two-room office, nearly all that remains of his government's headquarters in Ramallah.

During the day, intense fighting spread to Bethlehem, where Israeli troops backed by tanks fought Palestinian militants in Manger Square and outside the Church of Nativity, one of Christianity's holiest shrines. Masked gunmen fired from alleys and doorways, and dozens of militiamen were reported to have forced their way into the church and taken refuge.

The bodies of four Palestinian gunmen were within 50 yards of the church entrance last night, and about 120 armed men were inside, according to wire services and an Italian TV correspondent trapped in the area.

About 20 of the gunmen were wounded and being tended to by nuns and priests, according to a Palestinian police officer interviewed by wire services.

"Most of the guys have run out of bullets and ... we're completely surrounded," the officer said. "This is the only place that's safe for us to be."

Israeli forces had ringed the city with tanks and drove armored personnel carriers into Manger Square. Heavy fighting took place there and on side streets, with several Palestinian civilians among those reported killed. A 64- year-old woman and her 38- year-old son were shot outside the Santa Maria Convent near the church; hospital officials said the two bled to death because ambulances were prevented from reaching them.

Palestinians accused Israeli soldiers of firing on the city's churches, and Israeli officials said gunmen were throwing grenades and shooting from church windows. An army spokeswoman said soldiers were under strict orders not to shoot at churches unless fired upon from there.

"Bethlehem is an important symbol to the world," she said. "We respect that. But gunmen have broken the neutrality of churches."

By talking about expelling Arafat, Sharon was in effect trying to improve upon events of 1983, when he, as Israel's defense minister, besieged Arafat in Beirut, Lebanon, for 88 days but agreed to allow him to go into exile, along with aides and Palestinian fighters. Sharon recently expressed regret that he had not killed Arafat in 1983 when he had the chance.

Talking to Israeli Radio as he toured a military base in the West Bank, Sharon made clear that he did not intend to negotiate with Arafat and that the Palestinian would have to go into exile alone.

"He cannot take anyone with him because there are wanted murderers around him. It's going to be a one-way ticket. He is not going to be able to return. Everyone thinks that without him, nothing can be done. ... We will find someone with whom to negotiate."

A microphone for Israeli television picked up a brief, private conversation between Sharon and Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the army chief of staff, as they sat together at the base.

"We got to kick him out," Mofaz whispered in remarks broadcast last night.

"I know," said Sharon.

"This is the opportunity now," Mofaz said. "There is no other opportunity."

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said Sharon is intent on killing Arafat and crushing the Palestinian Authority.

"Sharon believes that he can get rid of the Palestinian national movement and destroy the aspirations of the Palestinian people," Rabbo said. "He wants to reshape everything according to his sick mind. Let him try."

At least nine Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were killed in yesterday's fighting. Last night, about 30 tanks rolled into Jenin, the fifth West Bank city invaded as part of Israel's six-day offensive - dubbed "Operation Protective Wall" - against what officials say is an entrenched terror network run by Arafat's closest aides.

On the outskirts of Ramallah, Israeli troops shelled a security headquarters, destroying the upper two floors and setting the building on fire, until a U.S.-brokered agreement allowed hundreds of Palestinian inside to surrender. Israeli officials said up to 50 wanted militants had been among those inside.

There were conflicting reports last night as to whether anyone remained in the ruins. Palestinians said everyone had surrendered; the army said several had refused to give up. There was no word on casualties.

Israel's offensive is aimed both at militants and senior Palestinian officials who once seemed untouchable. Sharon has argued that Arafat is building a terror organization rather than a nation, and a splinter group of Arafat's Fatah faction, the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, recently began to carry out more suicide bombings.

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