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Israel Bombards Palestinian Security Outposts; 2 Killed

Mideast: Strikes are launched after bombings and shootings that targeted Jewish state's citizens.

March 29, 2001|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Israeli helicopter gunships pounded the headquarters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's elite security forces in two cities late Wednesday, retaliating after a spate of bombings and shootings of Israelis.

At least one Palestinian officer was burned to death, a woman was killed and dozens of people were injured, Palestinian officials said.

Ariel Sharon's decision to launch a military attack, his first in three weeks as Israeli prime minister, came in response to mounting domestic pressure to crack down on Palestinian violence and despite the risk of further escalation of an already calamitous conflict.

"Times are not like in the past," Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey, spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, said in an interview late Wednesday. "We are not going to sit down quietly and just wait to become casualties of Palestinian terror. Enough is enough."

Palestinian leaders condemned what they called "barbaric aggression," which they said was encouraged by a U.S. veto Tuesday of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for the creation of a United Nations observer force to protect Palestinians.

The Israeli attacks followed the shooting death of a 10-month-old Jewish girl and three bomb blasts that killed two suicide bombers and two Israeli schoolboys--all in a 36-hour period.

Foreshadowing the retaliation, Sharon told reporters earlier Wednesday that Arafat and his "most loyal forces" were to blame, and he promised to make good on a campaign pledge to restore a sense of safety to the public. "Unfortunately," Sharon said, "Arafat remains a leader of terror."

Palestinian Cabinet minister Nabil Amr in an interview denied that Arafat's Palestinian Authority was involved in the terrorist attacks.

Kitrey said the Israeli air force fired missiles at five outposts--one in the West Bank city of Ramallah and four in the Gaza Strip--of Arafat's elite Force 17, which Sharon and other senior Israeli officials have repeatedly accused of carrying out shooting ambushes on Israeli motorists and Jewish settlers.

In addition to buildings and offices, the Israeli forces hit an ammunition depot, a military training camp and a Soviet-made armored vehicle. Some of the damage came within a few feet of Arafat's much-used helicopter landing pad in Gaza City, Israeli and Palestinian sources said.

Palestinian gunmen returned fire with submachine guns, witnesses said. In Ramallah, a 26-year-old Palestinian officer trapped in his barracks burned to death, doctors said. A Palestinian woman rushing to collect her children was also killed, apparently when she drove into the middle of a gun battle on the outskirts of Ramallah.

Residents said much of the city was plunged into darkness as at least 10 explosions shattered the night and set the Force 17 headquarters ablaze. Israel did not specifically target the power grid, Kitrey said.

"I was so scared I turned yellow," said Sana Harb, who runs a cardiac-care clinic. She took refuge in a basement with her children when the attack started about 8 p.m.

Rumors that Israel was invading Ramallah spread like wildfire through the city. Youths with guns roamed the streets in anticipation, and cars careened through neighborhoods, horns blaring. In Gaza, young men poured into the streets once the rocketing ended, chanting, "Allahu akbar!" (God is great!)

Palestinian security sources said they were given sufficient warning to evacuate. Kitrey said no warning was given.

Pressure on Sharon to act increased Wednesday after the latest terrorist bombing early in the day. He was being criticized by the right and many in his own government for showing restraint in the face of escalating attacks, evidently timed by the Palestinians to coincide with the just-concluded Arab League summit in Jordan.

On Wednesday morning, a Palestinian suicide bomber clad in black leather and nail-studded explosives walked up to a group of Jewish yeshiva students waiting for a ride to school and set off the explosives. Two of the boys, ages 13 and 14, were killed along with the bomber, and four others injured.

One of the wounded remained in critical condition Wednesday night. Doctors said they picked nails out of his internal organs.

The boys were killed at a gasoline station named Peace Rendezvous near the central Israeli town of Kfar Sava. They were waiting for the armored car that takes them to a Jewish settlement in the West Bank where they study the Torah and farming.

Also Wednesday morning, police managed to defuse bombs in the crowded marketplaces of two other Israeli cities, Netanya and Petah Tikva. The radical Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombs and warned that seven other suicide bombers have been dispatched to Israel.

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