Six arrested in U.S. convoy attack

Palestinian police trade fire with militants in Gaza

FBI investigators arrive

October 17, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Facing criticism from the United States, Palestinian authorities arrested several suspects yesterday in the bombing of a U.S. diplomatic convoy that killed three American security workers in the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian police traded gunfire with militants during an overnight raid into the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, near the site of Wednesday's bombing, according to Palestinian security officials and residents in the area. At least six suspects were taken into custody, the officials said.

The bomb, planted on Gaza's main north-south road, detonated under a Chevrolet Suburban sport utility vehicle shortly after the convoy entered Gaza. It was the first lethal attack on an official American target in three years of Mideast fighting and raised questions about whether violent Palestinian factions were changing tactics.

All major Palestinian factions have denied involvement, saying that their conflict is with Israel and that they do not intend to strike Americans. The Palestinian Authority did not release any official information on the arrests or the investigation, but there was speculation that the attack may have been carried out by a small, independent band of attackers not affiliated with a larger faction.

At least three of the six Palestinians detained belong to the Popular Resistance Committees, a loosely organized group made up of militants from various factions, according to security officials.

Many members of the Popular Resistance Committees are dissidents from the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement or disaffected members of the Palestinian security forces, which Arafat controls.

Arafat again condemned the attack yesterday. But if those responsible have links to his political movement or the Palestinian security forces, it would be deeply embarrassing to him.

"I am 100 percent certain that we will be able, in the next few days, to find those who planned and committed this attack," Jibril Rajoub, a senior Palestinian security official, told Israel radio. "We will investigate everyone we need to investigate."

The Palestinian police attempted to arrest a leader of the Popular Resistance Committees in northern Gaza, but the man, Raed Abu Beidh, escaped during a shootout yesterday in the Jabaliya camp, a Palestinian security official said.

In Israel, a U.S. Embassy official said the Americans were aware of the arrests by the Palestinian security forces but declined to comment further.

Meanwhile, FBI investigators arrived from the United States and will look into the bombing. The team is expected to focus mostly on the forensic evidence.

The United States and Israel have long criticized Arafat for refusing to use the security forces to crack down on violent groups, and they have demanded that he relinquish control of the forces to the Palestinian prime minister. Arafat is currently locked in a dispute with his new prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, over who will serve as the Palestinian security chief.

President Bush said Wednesday that the Palestinian leadership had some responsibility for the bombing because it had failed "to fight terror in all its forms."

In another development in Gaza, Israeli troops fatally shot one Palestinian and wounded several more during sporadic gunfire exchanges as the military pressed ahead with a week-old incursion in the southern town of Rafah, according to hospital officials in the town. Israeli soldiers are in Rafah to search for weapons smuggling tunnels connected to neighboring Egypt.

Israel asserted yesterday that a member of the Palestinian security forces had confessed to smuggling anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons into Gaza.

A statement from the office of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that Akram Tubasi, a member of the Palestinian coast guard, brought the missiles and other weapons through the smuggling tunnels into Rafah and then sold them to members of the security forces.

Israel has said that concerns about the smuggling of anti-aircraft missiles prompted the raid on Rafah, a town where Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers have repeatedly clashed.

The Israeli statement said Tubasi acknowledged smuggling six missiles into Gaza in 2001 and two more recently. Tubasi was arrested Sept. 7 and has been under interrogation.

Israel has not uncovered any missiles in Gaza, according to the military.

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