Israel rockets Arafat’s residential compound following deaths of soldiers

By IBRAHIM HAZBOUN

Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli helicopters rocketed Yasser Arafat’s residential compound, Palestinian police stations and broadcasting centers today in a powerful and swift retaliation for the brutal killings of two Israeli soldiers by a Palestinian mob.

Columns of smoke rose from Gaza City and the West Bank town of Ramallah after the gunships fired several waves of missiles.

"This is a declaration of war — a crazy war," Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, said of some of the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence since the 1967 Mideast war. The fighting has left last-ditch U.S. peace efforts in tatters.

Israel said it was sending a warning signal in a limited strike. Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami held Arafat responsible. "Arafat is endangering the entire region," Ben-Ami said, calling on the leaders of Egypt and Jordan to intervene and force the Palestinian leader to call a truce immediately.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urged both sides to call a truce.

The killing of the two soldiers incensed Israelis. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak called it a "cold-blooded lynching."

On Thursday morning, an angry mob stormed a Palestinian police station in the West Bank town of Ramallah, where the two Israeli reserve soldiers were being held after having made a wrong turn into the Palestinian city. The crowd beat the two and dumped the bloodied, mutilated bodies into the street. Chaotic TV footage showed Palestinians flashing V-signs from the second floor window of the police station as men in the background appeared to be striking at someone on the ground.

Barak responded quickly, tightly sealing Palestinian towns, amassing troops near Ramallah and unleashing helicopter gunships. A column of Israeli armored personnel carriers rumbled across a rocky hillside near Ramallah.

Arafat’s headquarters in Gaza City and buildings near it were hurriedly evacuated shortly as helicopters hovered above. A one-story building next to Arafat’s residence, housing his elite Force 17 bodyguard unit, was struck. Smoke rose above the compound near the Mediterranean seafront. Residents were running out of the buildings in the area amid the chaos, and ambulances rushed to the scene.

In the nearby town of Beit Lahia, rockets hit the headquarters of Tanzim, the armed wing of Arafat’s Fatah faction. Six Palestinian navy boats were also destroyed, the Palestinian news agency Wafa said.

U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said he was at Arafat’s headquarters, and left it just minutes before the missiles struck nearby. It was not immediately clear if the Palestinian leader was with Larsen at the time.

The Israeli attack came shortly after Arafat met with CIA chief George Tenet at an undisclosed location in Gaza City. Tenet had left the area before the attack, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

In Ramallah, an Israeli rocket hit a car, sending two Palestinian bystanders scrambling for cover as flames burst into the air. Another missile struck the police station where the Israelis had been killed hours earlier, reducing it to rubble.

The Palestinian TV headquarters in Ramallah were also hit. Palestinian reports said at least 12 people were injured. In a second wave, about two hours later, the helicopters returned, rocketing radio transmitters in the city.

An angry mob gathered outside the police station, shouting "God is great," and raising a Palestinian flag on a wall that was partially destroyed.

"This is a crime. Let the world see what Israel does to us," said Adeed Zeidan, a Palestinian ambulance driver.

Israel’s deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, said Israel attacked broadcasting stations "where all the instigation for violence and terrorism is coming from.

The killing of the soldiers and Israel’s strong response left little hope that Israel and the Palestinians could negotiate a truce and bring an end to two weeks of bloodshed that have left at least 94 people dead, the vast majority Palestinians.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan cut short a Lebanon visit to deal with the crisis between Israel and the Palestinians. "I appeal to all — leaders and citizens alike — to stop and think about what they are doing today and what kind of tomorrow they want for their children," Annan said in a statement. "I urge you to opt for restraint."

Earlier this week, Annan had tried to broker a truce, with little success.

The crisis erupted Thursday morning when the Israeli soldiers inadvertently ended up near the center of Ramallah, a scene of daily battles between Israeli troops and Palestinian rioters. The Palestinians initially said the two soldiers were undercover troops masquerading as Palestinians, but later said the two were driving in a car with Israeli license plates.

The soldiers were detained by Palestinian police and immediately rushed to a nearby police station. Rumors quickly spread that the Israelis were undercover troops. More than 1,000 Palestinians surged toward the police station.

Palestinian forces tried to keep the mob at bay, but about 10 men broke through a second-floor window where the Israelis were held. TV footage showed the attackers emerging from the station with blood-covered hands.

The bodies of two Israeli soldiers were thrown from the second floor and thrashed with iron bars. From the window, young Palestinians shook their fists and flashed gleeful "V for victory" signs.

The mob on the street surrounded one corpse and shouted angrily, witnesses said. Both Israeli bodies were soaked in blood.

Thirteen Palestinian policemen were injured while attempting to keep the mob away from the jail, the Palestinian Information Ministry said.

Throughout the Palestinians areas, security forces braced for further Israeli retaliation. "I don’t think anyone expects us to be restrained any longer," Israel’s Communications Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said on Army radio.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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