Siege in 8th day as Zinni, Arafat meet at complex

Discussions are held to prepare Mideast for Powell's arrival

Church standoff continues

April 06, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony C. Zinni met for 90 minutes yesterday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his besieged compound in Ramallah, ending Arafat's eight days of isolation imposed by the Israeli government.

No details were released about the meeting, but American and Palestinian officials held further talks into the night, preparing for Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's expected arrival here next week.

Arafat's chief spokesman, Nabil Abu Redeneh, released a statement saying only that more meetings were planned. Other Palestinian officials predicted that Arafat would reject an expected request by Zinni for the surrender of two men wanted by Israel in the assassination of a Cabinet minister.

If Arafat surrendered them, the officials said, Palestinians would consider him a traitor.

"Zinni is asking Arafat to commit suicide," said Palestinian legislator Ziad Abu Zayyad. "These people were in our jails, and we will try them. Mr. Zinni should not put any further burdens on Mr. Arafat's shoulders."

An Israeli military escort led Zinni into Ramallah. Soldiers throwing stun grenades forced back a group of journalists who tried to reach Arafat's compound in a convoy of bulletproof cars.

Last night, Palestinian officials said that Israeli soldiers forced their way into and searched the Ramallah home of Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian information minister, a high-ranking aide to Arafat. There were conflicting reports about whether he was detained; the army had no immediate comment.

Gunbattles continued for an eighth straight day in major West Bank cities reoccupied by Israeli troops. At least 16 Palestinians, including a 14-year-old girl, and two Israeli soldiers were killed in clashes in Jenin, Nablus and Bethlehem.

Six other Palestinians died in an Israeli missile attack on a house in the northern West Bank village of Toubas, near Jenin. They included a senior member of the Hamas militant group that Israel said masterminded last week's suicide bombing in Netanya that killed 26 Israelis.

A standoff over Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity continued, as some 120 armed Palestinians remained inside with as many as 60 priests. Israeli officials said the men inside included the governor of Bethlehem, Muhamad Al-Maadani; the head of a Palestinian intelligence service, Abdallah Daud; and the head of a security force, Majdi Al-Matri.

"In addition to them, some of the most wanted of Palestinian terror suspects have also taken refuge in the church," the Israeli army said in a statement.

Army officers said four priests slipped out of the church yesterday. They asserted that the priests' statements established "that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem has been forcibly seized by a group of armed terrorists who have taken hostages, among them members of the clergy, inside the church building."

Church officials, however, portrayed the standoff differently. The Rev. Giacomo Bini, head of the Franciscan Order, said at a news conference in Rome that the clergy are "voluntary hostages trapped between two fires. They cannot leave for fear that there will be a blood bath if they go."

Franciscans in Jerusalem accused Israel of exaggerating the incident to justify an armed assault on the church. The Israeli army has said it has no intention of storming the shrine, but that it will not leave without arresting the gunmen.

Bini said that the people inside have almost run out of food and that Vatican officials are ready to try to mediate between the two sides.

Israeli troops removed the bodies of six people killed Thursday in Manger Square and nearby streets, and gunfire and explosions could be heard from the city's outskirts and refugee camps. In Nablus, Israeli soldiers failed to advance into the Balata refugee camp and the city's central marketplace, where hundreds of Palestinian fighters had gathered.

Israeli Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland said yesterday that soldiers had arrested hundreds of suspected terrorists and found several bomb-making factories. The army said it has seized more than 1,500 rifles, 1,300 handguns, 26 heavy-caliber machine guns, and 39 vests rigged with bombs for suicide attacks.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Health Organization and the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees accused the Israeli army of violating Palestinians' human rights by preventing ambulances from retrieving the wounded and transporting sick patients. They also said army curfews have kept hundreds of thousands of civilians confined to their homes.

U.N. convoys have been blocked from entering the West Bank, and soldiers have searched the offices of human rights groups and separated doctors from their patients for hours while hospitals were searched. Hospitals are reporting shortages of food and medicines, warning that some patients, such as those requiring kidney dialysis, are in danger of dying unless they can leave their homes.

An Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem, said yesterday that it had received information from Israeli sources that Palestinian detainees in a military camp near Ramallah had been tortured by interrogators. B'Tselem alleged that some prisoners' toes were broken and that all have been refused lawyers.

Israeli officials vehemently denied mistreating any prisoners. But the army is saddled with troubling images broadcast worldwide, including scenes of bodies lying in streets.

Army officials have kept reporters away from Manger Square and the besieged Church of the Nativity; they have released a video of gunmen shooting their way inside and of the priests escaping.

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