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Fighting Rages at Jenin Camp

Mideast: A booby trap kills 13 Israeli soldiers. Scores of Palestinians are also reported slain. Near Haifa, a suicide attack on a bus kills at least 10.

April 10, 2002|RICHARD BOUDREAUX and TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

JENIN, West Bank — An explosion in a booby-trapped alleyway deep inside the besieged Jenin refugee camp killed at least 13 Israeli soldiers Tuesday, while uncounted dozens of Palestinians were also reported dead in the fiercest fighting yet in Israel's 12-day-old West Bank offensive.

And early today, a suicide bomber killed at least 10 Israelis on a bus--the first suicide attack in more than a week.

At the Jenin camp, plumes of smoke rose after the site was bombarded by Israeli combat helicopters. Residents reported seeing bodies littering the streets. Palestinian fighters vowed to resist to the death.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would press ahead with military raids and incursions across Palestinian territories despite Tuesday's devastating blow. It was the army's single greatest combat-related loss in five years. Seven soldiers were wounded in the attack, and another soldier was killed and eight more wounded in a separate attack a short time later.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is due in Israel on Thursday, a day earlier than scheduled, to attempt to defuse the crisis. He said Tuesday that the U.S. would be willing to contribute to an international monitoring force if a cease-fire could be achieved.

Powell also confirmed that he intended to meet with Yasser Arafat despite Israel's attempts to isolate and ostracize the Palestinian Authority president. Sharon labeled Powell's decision "a tragic mistake."

Stoking fears of another war front, Islamic Hezbollah guerrillas continued their attacks on northern Israel, firing missiles and Katyusha rockets Tuesday and early today. Israel responded with overnight air raids, striking suspected guerrilla hide-outs. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Meanwhile, Israel--under mounting international criticism--continued attacking purported militant strongholds and hunting for suspects in the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Nablus. Israeli forces also raided the West Bank town of Dura. Troops and tanks pulled back, however, from two other cities, Tulkarm and Kalkilya.

Israel says the campaign is aimed at uprooting suicide bombers and other terrorists. Until today, there had been a lull of more than a week in suicide bombing attacks.

At the morning rush hour, a suicide bomber blew himself up on a crowded bus near the coastal Israeli city of Haifa. At least 10 people were killed and 20 wounded in the bus and in nearby cars, police said. The death toll was expected to climb.

The battle for Jenin inside the tight, cramped refugee camp was shaping up as the toughest in the Israeli offensive. Jenin is also the site of a looming humanitarian disaster, according to residents and Palestinian relief workers. They said that Israeli armored bulldozers had flattened dozens of homes, some with people still inside, and that electricity and water had been cut for days.

Hundreds of Palestinians were reported dead or wounded, but an exact count had not been made because ambulances had not been able to retrieve all of the bodies.

It was impossible to independently verify any claims because Israeli authorities have banned journalists from entering Jenin--a decision that fueled rumors of widespread calamity. On Tuesday, reporters were able to reach the entrance to the town, about two miles from the refugee camp, but were turned away by soldiers.

Israeli officials said the battle in Jenin was far from over.

"We will continue to fight as long as necessary despite the loss," Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan, chief of the Israeli army central command, said in a briefing for reporters in Jerusalem on Tuesday night. "We will continue until we make this camp submit."

Eitan said the soldiers stumbled into the booby trap as they conducted house-to-house searches.

The men, all reservists, entered an alley in the refugee camp in search of an explosives lab, Israeli officials said. Palestinian fighters then detonated the explosives, bringing the building down on top of the troops.

A second unit of men arrived to attempt to rescue the first but came under heavy gunfire, the Israeli army said. The 13 dead included three whose bodies had to be dug out from the rubble. At least seven other soldiers were hurt, one critically. A suicide bomber apparently joined in the attack, the army said.

"They walked into a trap," army spokesman Moshe Fogel said.

A total of 23 soldiers have been killed in Jenin in less than a week of fighting. The entire camp, Israeli army officers said, is like a minefield of jury-rigged explosives and bombs meant to stop the advance of invading Israeli forces.

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