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THE MIDDLE EAST

Arafat, U.S. Envoy Meet; Fighting Rages

Conflict: Israel allows Zinni into Palestinian leader's compound for cease-fire talks. Despite Bush's plea, the army steps up its offensive.

April 06, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON and CAROLYN COLE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

RAMALLAH, West Bank — On a bloody day of fierce fighting, the diplomatic isolation of Yasser Arafat was broken Friday when the United States' special Mideast envoy walked past Israeli tanks and into the Palestinian Authority president's besieged headquarters here.

Despite President Bush's appeal for a halt to the bloodshed, Israel accelerated its massive offensive in the West Bank, entering yet another Palestinian town. More than two dozen Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were killed.

The Palestinian dead, according to Israeli officials, included the alleged mastermind of last month's Passover suicide bombing that killed 26 people and a top commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement. Both killings represent a coup for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been under pressure to produce results in the 8-day-old campaign.

Here in Ramallah, where tanks and snipers have turned the once prosperous de facto Palestinian capital into a battered ghost town, U.S. envoy Anthony C. Zinni met with Arafat for about 90 minutes to discuss the prospects for a cease-fire ahead of the arrival next week of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Zinni, flanked by well-armed bodyguards, stepped from his armored car into the building where Arafat has been confined for more than a week as Israeli forces chopped away at the compound. Much of the headquarters lies in ruins, and Arafat has been holed up inside with close aides and bodyguards.

Sharon, who has publicly voiced his desire to see Arafat exiled or dead, only begrudgingly allowed the visit to take place. The Israeli government was so opposed to the meeting that it continued to ban journalists from the area. At close range, Israeli soldiers fired stun grenades and rubber-coated steel bullets at reporters who were waiting outside Arafat's compound for Zinni's arrival. One group of soldiers rammed its jeep into a CNN vehicle, and the journalists were forced to flee.

An unapologetic government spokesman, Daniel Seaman, later told CNN that journalists must obey Israel's laws and stay clear of areas that are declared "military zones." And Sharon's spokesman made it clear that the government simply doesn't want coverage of Arafat.

"Zinni is not going there for a photo op for hugging and kissing like [with] the European Union, and that is precisely the point," Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said. On Thursday, Israel refused to let an EU delegation meet with Arafat.

Israeli officials were embarrassed when, in the first days of the siege on Ramallah, Arafat telephoned countless television stations to offer interviews and then received a visit from foreign peace activists. Rather than isolation, he suddenly gained a martyr's status that only a publicity director could dream of.

In a shift that placed a rare onus on Israel, President Bush on Thursday demanded that the government end the incursions into Palestinian cities and towns and begin withdrawing troops. He announced that he was dispatching Powell to the region next week.

Israeli officials chose to interpret Bush's statement not as a red light to cease operations but as a green light to speed up its massive operation before Powell's arrival.

Powell sought to clarify the U.S. position Friday and told Israel to withdraw military forces from Palestinian areas "without delay" and not use the days before his arrival to continue incursions that have fed an explosion of violence.

Rights Group Alleges Torture of Detainees

After an unprecedented spate of suicide bombings, Israel has occupied every major Palestinian city in the West Bank save one, in what it described as a hunt for terrorists and the infrastructure that supports them. Army operations chief Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland said about 1,200 Palestinians have been rounded up, of which about 200 are serious criminals, and numerous weapons confiscated.

The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem on Friday accused the army of torturing Palestinian detainees at the Ofer military camp just outside Ramallah. Interrogation methods include the breaking of detainees' toes, B'Tselem said in a statement. The extent of the practice was not known, B'Tselem said, but attorneys will petition the Israeli Supreme Court to demand a halt to the practice and gain access to the prisoners.

One Palestinian released from Ofer said in an interview Friday that detainees who are Palestinian policemen received the worst treatment.

Kamal abu Khadijeh, a finance manager for Coca-Cola in Ramallah, was grabbed from his home by soldiers last Saturday, handcuffed, blindfolded and taken to Ofer. He said he was never questioned beyond basic biographical data, was held in crude conditions in a tent with hundreds of other men and finally released Wednesday.

There was no immediate comment from the army on the B'Tselem accusation.

The deadliest violence Friday was in Nablus and Jenin, cities where few journalists have been able to gain access.

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