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Archive for Saturday, March 30, 2002

s headquarters

March 30, 2002

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— Israeli troops backed by tanks swarmed into Yasser Arafat's headquarters Friday, punching holes in walls and fighting room to room as the Palestinian leader huddled in a windowless office and made frantic appeals to world leaders by cell phone.

Early this morning, Israeli tanks also rumbled into a Palestinian town adjoining biblical Bethlehem where Christians are observing Easter weekend, but did not enter Bethlehem itself, Palestinians said.

Five Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers were killed as Israeli forces took over the West Bank city of Ramallah and Arafat's sprawling compound, where 25 Palestinians were wounded and 60 detained.

In a Palestinian attack in Jerusalem, an 18-year-old woman blew herself up at the entrance of a supermarket, killing herself and two Israelis. The Al-Aqsa Brigades, a militia close to Arafat's Fatah movement, said it sent the bomber.

The Ramallah operation was described by Israeli officials as the first stage of a much larger assault aimed at destroying the "terrorist infrastructure" that Israelis blame for the hundreds of deaths they have suffered in 18 months of relentless violence. More than a thousand Palestinians also have died.

Israel said it had no plans to kill Arafat but wanted to isolate him. He scoffed at the assurance.

"They were shelling us continuously in the last 24 hours," Arafat said in a telephone interview with CNN, during which machine-gun fire could be heard in the background.

"They are using all the American weapons against us," he added. The United States supplies Israel with the bulk of its military hardware.

Throughout the day, Israeli tanks shelled buildings in the compound and soldiers entered buildings and traded fire with Palestinians. By nightfall, Arafat was trapped in his three-story office building, which was plunged into darkness when soldiers cut off electricity and destroyed a generator.

The boxed-in leader followed events on television, giving phone interviews to TV channels and speaking by cell phone to more than a dozen world leaders. Arafat pleaded for immediate help but was not given real promises, one of his aides said.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council convened an emergency session Friday to consider the upsurge in violence. An Arab group demanded in a resolution a Mideast cease-fire and that Israel withdraw troops from Palestinian cities, including Ramallah.

Secretary of State Colin Powell held a half hour conversation with Arafat during which Powell delivered a stern message to curtail terrorism, U.S. officials said.

The Palestinians said Arafat also spoke several other leaders, including U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Arab League leader Amr Moussa, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and the heads of various African nations.

A submachine gun placed on the table in front of him, Arafat was defiant. "They want me under arrest or in exile or dead, but I am telling them, I prefer to be martyred," he said in a telephone interview with Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite television channel. "May God make us martyrs."

In yet another interview, with Jordanian state-run television, Arafat described Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as "bloodthirsty" and bent on "blowing up" a collective Arab peace initiative endorsed Thursday. Arafat added that the United States "could have ordered him (Sharon) to end the attacks. Why are they quiet despite all that is taking place?"

In Washington, Powell said Sharon had told the United States that Arafat would not be harmed. Powell urged the Israeli prime minister to use restraint and consider the consequences of escalation. But Powell added: "Let's be clear about what brought it all to a halt  terrorism."

Despite the violence, U.S. truce envoy Anthony Zinni continued his mission, meeting with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat on Friday and speaking to Arafat by phone.

Erekat said Israel's "endgame is to kill Arafat," an accusation that Sharon spokesman Ranaan Gissin dismissed as "nonsense."

The latest escalation began with a suicide bombing Wednesday in an Israeli hotel banquet hall that killed 22 diners during a Passover Seder, the ritual meal at the start of the weeklong Jewish holiday. It was followed by attacks on two Jewish settlements Thursday and Friday that killed six Israelis.

On Friday morning, after an all-night session, Sharon's Cabinet declared Arafat an "enemy" and said the Palestinian leader would be completely isolated. Israel began calling up reserve soldiers, and the mobilization was expected to reach 20,000 troops, the largest in a decade.

Hours later, Israeli troops and two dozen tanks swarmed into Arafat's walled compound.

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