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CRISIS IN THE MIDEAST

Blast Rips U.S. Warship in Yemen

Israel Pounds Palestinians After Mob Kills 2 of Its Soldiers

Public lynchings, as well as burning of unidentified victim, prompt rocket attacks in Gaza and West Bank.

October 13, 2000|TRACY WILKINSON and MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israeli combat helicopters attacked Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's police, radio and navy headquarters Thursday after an enraged Palestinian mob captured and lynched two Israeli soldiers and then dragged a corpse through city streets.

It was Israel's fiercest military assault against Palestinian targets here in decades and pushed the two adversaries alarmingly close to all-out warfare, leaving a once-promising peace process in ruins.

Downtown Ramallah was shrouded in smoke and flames after the strikes temporarily knocked out the city's electricity and Voice of Palestine radio, and left residents cowering in their homes.

Arafat called the attacks "a declaration of war," while Israeli officials maintained that they had launched limited and surgical strikes in retaliation for the brutal killings--and to serve as a deterrent.

"The message is, don't mess with us. Stop the violence," said Israel Defense Forces spokesman Col. Raanan Gissin.

A somber Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak went on national television and called the killings "a brutal, coldblooded lynching" that could not go unanswered."

"They were lynched, mutilated and burned," Barak said of the two army reserve soldiers who apparently had driven into a Palestinian-controlled part of the West Bank by mistake. Barak said that a third, unidentified Israeli was killed and his body returned along with those of the soldiers. He said he held Arafat's Palestinian Authority responsible for the killings.

Israel sealed off Palestinian-controlled areas and deployed tanks across the West Bank, bracing for more confrontations. Arafat's grass-roots Fatah organization vowed revenge, and Palestinian officials announced the release of jailed leaders of the Islamic extremist group Hamas, as if to signal the launching of a terrorism campaign.

The spiral of violence eclipsed all international efforts to negotiate a cease-fire to the two weeks of bloody riots that have left more than 95 people dead, the vast majority of them Palestinians. The 7-year-old Oslo peace accords, which last month still offered some hope of ending the half-century Israeli-Palestinian conflict, appeared to be finished.

In Washington, President Clinton said: "Now is the time to stop the bloodshed, to restore calm, to return to dialogue and, ultimately, to the negotiating table. The alternative to the peace process is now no longer merely hypothetical. It is unfolding today before our very eyes."

Both sides were seething and blaming each other for the escalation. Israel's right-wing opposition charged that Barak hadn't hit the Palestinians hard enough. Palestinian leaders called for international intervention to "stop the madness."

Late Thursday, Israeli helicopters continued attacks on police stations in at least three other Palestinian towns, including Nablus, home to the best-organized Palestinian militia. And an ancient synagogue in the Palestinian-controlled city of Jericho was torched by a Palestinian mob; Israeli gunships blasted the Palestinian police academy in Jericho in retaliation.

Barak, weakened politically by desertions from his administration precisely over his peacemaking efforts, called for a "national emergency government" to confront the most devastating crisis he has faced since taking office 15 months ago. He met until early today with right-wing leader Ariel Sharon, a hawkish foe of making concessions to the Palestinians, on plans to join forces.

Barak denied reports that the Israeli army had targeted Arafat in Thursday's air raids. Arafat, in Gaza City at the time, was not hurt.

Reservists Stumble Into Palestinian Lands

The crisis erupted early Thursday when the Israeli reserve soldiers driving a Mazda sedan made a wrong turn into Palestinian-controlled territory and were taken at gunpoint to downtown Ramallah, according to Israeli officials. They were detained by Palestinian police and taken to a nearby police station.

As word spread that the Israelis were in detention, hundreds of civilians, some of them armed, surrounded the police station chanting "Allahu akbar! (God is great!)" and "Death to the death squads!"

The third man with the soldiers was apparently burned to death when the mob upended and burned their vehicle.

Palestinian police made some effort to control the surging mob, but it swiftly forced its way into the police station and up to the second floor where the soldiers were being held. There, the Israelis were beaten and stabbed to death, according to various accounts. At least one of the bodies was then dropped out of an upper-story window and onto the pavement below, where cheering men stomped and pounded on it.

A mutilated corpse was then dragged through the streets to Ramallah's central Manara Square.

Some in the mob apparently believed that the Israelis were part of an undercover unit that poses as Arabs to infiltrate Palestinian towns--despite the fact that at least two of the Israelis were wearing camouflage fatigues.

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