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Israeli Forces Kill Senior Members of Islamic Jihad

Manhunt for Iyad Sawalha, accused of masterminding bus bombings, ends in firefight during army operation in Jenin.

November 10, 2002|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — In a predawn gun battle Saturday, Israeli troops killed a senior leader of the Islamic Jihad group who was wanted for allegedly masterminding a fiery bus bombing less than three weeks ago that killed 14 Israelis, burning many alive.

Iyad Sawalha, the target of an intensive Israeli manhunt in recent weeks, was tracked down to a cinderblock house at the edge of the maze-like casbah in the West Bank city of Jenin.

Israeli troops burst in before dawn, uncovered an underground chamber in which Sawalha was hiding and killed him in a brief but fierce firefight, during which he hurled a grenade and fired at soldiers with an assault rifle, Israeli security sources said.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat denounced the killing, and Islamic Jihad, which along with the militant group Hamas has been responsible for dozens of attacks aimed at Israelis over the last two years, vowed that it would exact vengeance.

"Our jihad will continue," said Sheik Abdullah Shami, an Islamic Jihad leader in the Gaza Strip. "This criminal event will not break our strength."

Arafat said the killing was a desecration of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.

"It was a very big crime that was committed through military aggression against our people and against our religious holidays," the Palestinian Authority president told journalists at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Israel defended its action as crucial to its campaign to halt suicide bombings, which have killed and injured hundreds of Israelis.

"There's no question that an important part of the war against terror is breaking apart the organizational infrastructure of such groups," said Dore Gold, a policy advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Sawalha, 28, who led Islamic Jihad's operations in the northern part of the West Bank, was directly blamed by Israel for bus bombings in northern Israel that claimed 31 lives in the last five months.

Fourteen Israelis were killed Oct. 21 outside the town of Hadera when an explosives-laden SUV slammed into their bus, and 17 were killed in a similar attack June 5 near Megiddo, the biblical Armageddon.

In the Hadera attack, the bus' fuel tank exploded when the bomb went off, triggering an inferno that trapped many of the passengers, burning them to death while would-be rescuers looked on helplessly.

Israeli authorities also said Sawalha masterminded a failed attempt in September to smuggle a car bomb primed with 770 pounds of explosives into northern Israel with the intention of blowing up a residential building. The attack was foiled when the car was spotted and the drivers fled.

Israel considered Sawalha particularly dangerous in part because the operations he allegedly planned employed methods and tactics not commonly seen during the last 25 months of violence: making use of powerful car bombs rather than attackers who approach their targets on foot with a relatively small payload of explosives strapped to their bodies.

Once a vehicle filled with explosives has successfully crossed from the West Bank into Israel, it is extremely difficult to detect it and prevent an attack, military officials say.

Over the last two years, Israel has carried out targeted killings -- assassinations, the Palestinians and human rights groups call them -- of more than two dozen Palestinian militants who it says orchestrated attacks against Israelis.

This time, however, the army appeared eager to show that its intention had been to arrest Sawalha if possible.

In an unusual move, the military released a three-minute videotape that showed troops with night-vision equipment fanning out and stealthily approaching the house, then searching it as they called out for Sawalha to come out and give himself up.

The footage did not include the reported exchange of fire but did feature a lingering shot of its aftermath -- a pool of blood and a hand grenade on the floor of the rubble-filled enclosure beneath the house. The video also showed the body, covered with a white sheet, being loaded into an ambulance.

Graphic footage shot later Saturday by Associated Press Television News, when the body was handed over to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, showed Sawalha's uncovered body, clad in a T-shirt soaked with blood and bearing the reproduction of a "martyr poster" -- a picture of a suicide bomber wreathed in Koranic verses.

Sawalha's eyes were open, and his right arm was raised. The hand had been blown off, leaving only a scorched stump.

Neighbors reported that after the troops closed in, Sawalha's wife came out of the house and surrendered while he stayed inside. They said the exchange of fire lasted nearly an hour.

Jenin, which Israel says has been the source of dozens of suicide attacks, has been under a tight lockdown since the Israeli army moved in three days after the Hadera bombing with hundreds of troops backed by tanks and armor.

Curfews have been lifted occasionally for the city's 50,000 residents to shop for supplies, but troops have maintained a tight circle around the perimeter.

Sawalha had been the prime target in house-to-house searches for Islamic Jihad figures and other militants, many of whom went literally underground after the Israelis moved in. Last week, the army arrested Sawalha's top deputy after cornering him in a similar chamber carved beneath the floor of a house.

Elsewhere, the army said a soldier was killed and an officer was seriously wounded Saturday by a roadside bomb in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian militants have mounted attacks along Gaza roads used exclusively by Jewish settlers and Israeli military vehicles and have planted bombs powerful enough to destroy Israeli tanks.

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