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THE WORLD

Israel Hunts Arafat Aides as Assault Mounts

Mideast: Army pounds security complex in Ramallah and thrusts into Bethlehem. Palestinians execute 10 accused of aiding the Jewish state.

April 02, 2002|RICHARD BOUDREAUX and TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships pounded the main Palestinian security headquarters in the West Bank and thrust into the center of Bethlehem early today in a mounting offensive that Israel said was aimed against terrorism.

As the offensive closed in on them, Palestinian gunmen killed 10 compatriots accused of collaborating with the Jewish state. Nine of them were hauled from detention centers and shot in the streets Monday, apparently to prevent their rescue by advancing Israeli forces.

The predawn Israeli assaults near Ramallah and inside Bethlehem marked one of the biggest operations against the 18-month-old Palestinian uprising. It came on the sixth day of Operation Protective Wall, a punishing counteroffensive that has left those Palestinian-ruled cities and two others fully occupied by Israeli troops.

The attack on the security headquarters signals a shift in Israeli strategy. It shows that Israel has decided to hunt key aides to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Israeli leaders say the offensive is aimed at a Palestinian terrorist infrastructure blamed for six suicide attacks that have claimed more than 40 lives since Wednesday. A Palestinian wearing an explosive belt blew himself up near Jerusalem's Old City late Monday, severely wounding the policeman who had stopped the Palestinian's car.

By dawn today, the sprawling U.S.-built complex housing the Palestinian Authority's Preventive Security Service in Beitunia, just west of Ramallah, was in flames after hours of explosions and bursts of machine-gun fire.

Palestinian officials said about 400 people were inside and desperate to escape, a claim that could not be independently verified. Col. Jibril Rajoub, the West Bank's security chief, had reportedly ordered his men at the compound to resist. Rajoub himself was not present.

Israel maintains that several top Arafat lieutenants have been implicated in attacks on Israelis and have been hiding in the building. Among them is Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah activist who is the de facto head of West Bank militias and patron of the uprising.

Barghouti may have been in the complex, which was so ornate that it contained a soaring atrium and lobby into which Rajoub could drive his armored cars. Until now, senior Israeli officials had said Barghouti was not a target. But Israel's intelligence establishment holds him responsible for the relentless wave of attacks.

Rajoub heads the CIA-trained Preventive Security Service and has always been a favorite among American officials and numerous Israelis as well. He has often been cited by Israelis as the kind of "pragmatic" Palestinian they would prefer to work with. At least until recently, the only photograph on his desk was one of himself with CIA Director George J. Tenet.

Many had assumed Rajoub's headquarters would be immune to attack. It is one of a very small handful of police installations that had not been bombarded by Israel in the last 18 months. The Preventive Security Service is the body that would be responsible for most of the arrests of militants demanded by Israel.

Gunfire Is Heard Blocks From Nativity Church

In Bethlehem, Israeli tanks and helicopters met some resistance as they moved into the biblical city from two directions about an hour before dawn, residents said. Exchanges of gunfire were heard several blocks from the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus.

Israeli forces surrounded the Dahaisha refugee camp on the edge of the city and began searching homes for Palestinian militants, residents said.

Arafat remained trapped in Ramallah Monday, pinned down by Israeli troops within the walls of his compound. He and his followers call the Israeli offensive a punitive campaign against all Palestinians who demand an independent state.

"We do not understand what the Israelis want out of this, but we are expecting a long siege," said Mohammed Madani, governor of the Bethlehem region, predicting severe hardship for its 150,000 inhabitants.

After a day of troop movements and sporadic gunfire across the West Bank, the Israeli government announced late Monday the call-up of 11,000 reservists to join 20,000 others mobilized last week for the offensive.

Tension also ran high in the Gaza Strip, where gunfire from an Israeli border observation tower killed a 13-year-old Palestinian boy near a market in Rafah. And in Lebanon, Hezbollah guerrillas fired two rockets at Israel for the first time since Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon in May 2000. The rockets exploded harmlessly in fields.

Israeli forces moved into the Palestinian towns of Kalkilya and Tulkarm, in the northern part of the West Bank, on Sunday night and Monday. They met little resistance, except for a bomb explosion that wounded eight Israeli soldiers searching a home in Kalkilya.

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