Suicide bomb kills 13 Israeli soldiers

Troops encounter bomber in house-to-house search of Jenin refugee camp

Rescuers come under sniper fire

Angry Sharon promises to continue `battle for survival of Jewish people'

April 10, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM --Thirteen Israeli soldiers were killed yesterday in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank when an explosive detonated by a suicide bomber collapsed buildings on top of them, prompting a vow by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to continue the military offensive against Palestinian cities.

The soldiers were conducting house-to-house searches when the bomber approached them and set off the explosive, burying the soldiers in rubble near the center of the camp.

Army commanders said snipers pinned down rescuers who came to unearth the dead and treat nine other soldiers injured by the explosion and debris.

It was the highest combat death toll the army had suffered in a single day in the 18 months of the Palestinian uprising.

All of those killed were reservists who had been called back to active duty within the past two weeks; two other soldiers were killed in fighting elsewhere, one in Nablus and the other in a village south of Hebron.

About 120 to 150 Palestinians have been killed in the camp in the past 12 days. Fighting continued last night, as gunmen fired from homes near the camp's center, now nearly destroyed.

"It was a difficult day," Sharon said in a televised address shortly after the soldiers' deaths were announced. "There was a very tough battle against the terrorist organizations."

Early today during morning rush hour, an apparent suicide bomber blew up aboard a commuter bus east of the Israeli coastal town of Haifa, killing at least five people and wounding more than 25. It was the first terror attack claiming civilian lives since March 31, when a suicide bomber killed 15 Israelis on a bus, also in Haifa.

Despite strong American pressure on Israel to withdraw from Palestinian cities, Sharon made clear that the army would remain in the West Bank for at least several more days. Troops and armored vehicles withdrew yesterday to the outskirts of two cities, Tulkarm and Qalqiliya, in response to the Bush administration's pleas, but the army also pushed into several villages.

"This is a battle for the survival of the Jewish people, for survival of the state of Israel," Sharon said.

There have been several intense battles: in Nablus, where about 50 Palestinians have been killed, and outside Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, where he remains besieged. But fighting has been fiercest in Jenin.

The refugee camp, covering barely a square mile, is a dusty, densely populated maze of blind alleys and a stronghold for three factions of Palestinian militants.

"The fighters of Jenin have vowed to continue their fights until death or victory," said Hussam Khader, head of committee for the Defense of Palestinian Refugee Rights. "This is a massacre. Where are the civilized leaders of the world? Where is America?"

There are few detailed accounts of events inside the camp because the army has barred journalists and aid agencies from entering.

Palestinian ambulance crews say the army has prevented them from treating the wounded and retrieving the dead -- their bodies apparently left on the streets. A convoy of United Nations trucks with food and medicine was stopped last night at a checkpoint.

Hossam K. Sharkawi, the emergency response coordinator for the Red Crescent Society, the Palestinian Red Cross, said 200 women and children were in an ambulance bay in the center of the camp.

"We have no blankets or water to give them," Sharkawi said last night. "From 6 a.m. to now, we have been waiting for the Israelis to give us a green light and go in. It has not come. We even requested to move from a station closer to the camp. That was refused. We're extremely concerned.

"We have been hearing all these horrific reports," said Sharkawi, who himself is unable to leave Ramallah. "We haven't been able to confirm anything."

Israeli officials said yesterday that they offered the Palestinians a temporary cease-fire to remove bodies, but it was refused. They said they gave the Red Crescent permission to retrieve corpses for burial but the aid agency declined.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a member of the left-of-center Labor Party, warned of the public relations damage Israel could suffer because of the battles in Jenin. He said Palestinian activists might use the high casualty count to "distort it as a massacre."

Israeli military officials said the gunmen sought to make Jenin into the "Palestinian Masada" -- a reference to the fortified outpost in the Judean desert where in the first century, according to an account from the time, Jews in revolt against Roman authorities killed their families and themselves rather than be captured by Roman troops.

It remains impossible to know how many Palestinians have been killed in Jenin, nor how many of them were gunmen or civilians. But what is clear is that Israel's attack has been on a large scale.

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