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Israelis Target Arafat Offices

Mideast: It is unclear if the troops are trying to capture the Palestinian leader. Military action comes after a bus bombing kills soldiers.

June 06, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON and MAHER ABUKHATER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israeli tanks blasted their way into the headquarters compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat early today, hours after a suicide bomber in a car killed 17 Israelis on a crowded bus.

Israeli forces pounded buildings in the complex and fought with Palestinian guards but did not immediately move to capture Arafat, whom the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon blames for Wednesday's bombing, the deadliest in more than two months. After a devastating suicide bombing in March, Israeli tanks and troops laid siege to Arafat's Ramallah compound for 34 days.

Flashes of light illuminated the dark sky over this West Bank city, and huge explosions--as many as 20 in one half-hour period--echoed as tanks pounded the complex with shells and heavy machine-gun fire. A Palestinian official, speaking by telephone from one building, said that 20 tanks had penetrated the outer walls of the block-long complex and that there was considerable damage.

Daylight revealed scenes of destruction. The national security and police intelligence buildings within the compound were flattened. Huge chunks of concrete, pieces of lumber and metal bars littered the ground.

Arafat retreated to an underground bunker and was safe, said the Palestinian official, Deputy Gov. Saeb Nassar. The Palestinian Authority president's guards returned fire sporadically. According to reports, at least six guards were wounded and one intelligence officer was killed.

"We are prepared for anything," Nassar said.

An Israeli army spokeswoman said troops and armor were surrounding the complex and were engaged in "heavy exchanges of fire." She later said some Israeli troops were withdrawing.

Six hours after the operation began, the troops pulled out of the compound.

Furious Israeli payback had been expected after Wednesday's suicide bombing during the morning rush hour near Megiddo in northern Israel. The attack killed 17 Israelis. Most were young soldiers--male and female, in their late teens and early 20s--on their way to duty at a string of military bases.

A Palestinian drove a stolen car laden with explosives to the rear of a crowded inter-city bus, detonating the bomb and engulfing the bus in a massive fireball.

Immediately after the attack, Sharon delayed a scheduled departure for the United States until Saturday, calling off appearances in New York. He plans to meet with President Bush on Monday as the United States tries to revive peace talks.

The bus exploded hours after CIA Director George J. Tenet met with Arafat to discuss the Palestinian administration's failure to control the recent run of militant attacks on Israel. News reports said Tenet had warned Arafat that another bombing would unleash an Israeli fury that Washington would not halt.

Islamic Jihad, a radical Palestinian organization, claimed responsibility for the Megiddo attack. Arafat's Palestinian Authority condemned the bombing and denied having any link to it or having any prior knowledge of it.

But Israel held Arafat exclusively responsible.

In a heated emergency Cabinet meeting, several Israeli ministers demanded that Arafat be expelled--an option that has been on the table for some time but avoided because of the likely repercussions both here and abroad.

"The time has come ... to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and get Arafat out of here," Public Security Minister Uzi Landau said.

More moderate ministers argued that removing Arafat will not squelch terrorism. Israel has been pursuing a strategy of daily raids into Palestinian cities and towns with the stated purpose of rounding up potential militants and dismantling bomb-making factories.

But Israeli officials say death tolls are likely to climb in coming months as Palestinian militants attempt "mega-attacks" against Israel. Militants have been varying their tactics in the pursuit of a bigger bang and higher death toll, especially as Israeli forces tighten their grip on most Palestinian towns and cities.

The Palestinian who killed 29 people in a hotel bombing at a Passover Seder in late March, for example, planned to use lethal cyanide gas but botched its release, army and intelligence officials revealed this week.

It was the Passover carnage that provoked Israel to launch a five-week assault on Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank. The prolonged crackdown was meant to shatter the infrastructure of violent militants, but the attacks against Israel have continued and appear to be worsening.

Wednesday's attack in Megiddo was unusual: The assailant used a moving vehicle to attack a moving target. It was the first such attack in the last 20 months of bloodshed, in which more than 1,800 people have been killed. And the use of a vehicle allowed him to pack a far more lethal amount of explosives into his weapon than would be possible with the more common belt or satchel worn by suicide bombers on foot.

Islamic Jihad said the Megiddo attacker hailed from the West Bank city of Jenin.

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