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THE WORLD

Israel Blasts Hebron Complex

Mideast: Up to 15 Palestinians in a West Bank security building are apparently killed. Army says they were responsible for terror.

June 29, 2002|BARBARA DEMICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HEBRON, West Bank — Moving swiftly to resolve a four-day siege, the Israeli army blew up a Palestinian security headquarters, apparently killing as many as 15 militants who had barricaded themselves inside.

About 11 p.m. Friday, the army set off a tremendous explosion that shattered windows around this West Bank city, witnesses said.

"This was huge. I would guess that anybody inside is dead," said Dan Fortson, an American who watched the explosion from about 200 yards away. He said that the building disappeared behind a cloud of smoke and that when the smoke cleared the building appeared to be heavily damaged.

Early today, witnesses reported a second blast that reduced the building to rubble. "There's nothing called the headquarters anymore," said Mohammed Maswadeh, whose windows were blown out.

In a statement, the Israeli army said that those inside the building were responsible for "murderous terror attacks" inside Israel. After encouraging the suspects to surrender, the army said, it "detonated in a controlled manner part of the building" with the first explosion.

The army was apparently trying to avoid the kind of prolonged standoff that took place in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, where militants holed up for five weeks in April and May. But this building had no particular religious or historical significance, allowing the army to take more extreme measures.

Because the explosion occurred during the Sabbath, senior Israeli officials were not available for comment. But the army said it had found evidence in Hebron that the Palestinian security services--which report through the chain of command to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat--were sponsoring terrorism. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government has been eager to produce proof of Arafat's links to terrorists; evidence supplied by Israel prompted President Bush this week to call on the Palestinian people to change their leadership.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Friday that the U.S. would turn to other Palestinian leaders to broker peace with Israel and to reform the Palestinian movement, but he did not specify who.

Powell's words followed several days of uncertainty about whether the United States would again deal with Arafat, and he cited the administration view that Arafat did not respond strongly enough to U.S. pleas to rein in the violence against Israel and promote peace.

"There's a price to be paid for inaction against terrorism, inaction against reform," Powell told Associated Press. "There are others in the Palestinian movement that can help transform it."

In its statement about the Hebron action, the army said, "Palestinian terrorists took refuge in this building with the knowledge of the senior Palestinian leadership."

Inside, the army said, it found more than 100 explosive devices similar to those used by Hezbollah, the Islamic movement that targets Israel from Lebanon.

The army said it thought there were about 15 people inside at the time of the explosion.

Israeli radio reported that most were members of the Tanzim, a militia associated with Arafat's Fatah faction, including a member of the Islamic movement Hamas who had gunned down two Jewish settlers and a soldier this month in the nearby settlement of Karmei Tzur.

Earlier this week, Israel negotiated the surrender of more than 100 Palestinians working inside the building, including 20 who officials said were wanted militants. In a last-ditch effort to flush out those remaining inside, a former Palestinian Cabinet minister was sent in Friday morning.

"I had a microphone and I was calling, 'If you are here, please talk to me,' but nobody answered," Talal Seder said in an interview. He said he could not say whether the large building was empty or whether the people inside simply did not want to come out.

Since Tuesday, the army had been pounding away at the building with tanks, helicopter gunships and bulldozers.

"This has been terrifying for us," said Fouwas Aweiwi, 31, who lives about 100 yards away with his pregnant wife and two young sons. "The children are shaking. They can't sleep. Everybody is afraid."

Israel has conducted a sweeping operation throughout the West Bank in the aftermath of two suicide bombings last week in Jerusalem that left 26 Israelis dead.

In other developments Friday, Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin led an anti-American demonstration in Gaza City, apparently disproving claims this week that the Palestinian Authority had put him under house arrest.

Meanwhile, it was reported that an Israeli military court sentenced a 16-year-old Palestinian member of Hamas to life in prison Thursday for trying to blow himself up in February, the first time a would-be bomber was brought to trial.

*

Times staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.

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