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Israelis leave Arafat compound after raid

New Ramallah siege follows suicide bombing on bus

A Palestinian policeman walks by a damaged building Thursday in Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah.
A Palestinian policeman walks by a damaged building Thursday in Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah.  

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- Israeli forces pulled out of the compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the West Bank town of Ramallah on Thursday morning after storming the complex hours earlier, Israeli military sources said.

But later 15 Israeli armored personnel carriers were seen re-entering Ramallah from the southwest. Palestinian security sources said the Israelis were traveling in the general direction of Arafat's compound.

The Israel Defense Forces said the troops were on the move as part of a "pinpoint" operation that involved Betunia, a town next to Ramallah. The IDF gave no other details. The Palestinian Preventive Security Service for the West Bank is in Betunia.

The siege on Arafat's compound followed Wednesday's attack by a Palestinian suicide car bomber that killed 17 Israelis on a bus in northern Israel.

Arafat emerged from the compound a short time following the pullout, flashing a "V" for victory and denouncing the Israeli incursion.

"It is a message for the whole international world to see the fascism and this aggression against the headquarters of the Palestinian people," said a defiant Arafat, surrounded by reporters. "No one can defeat the Palestinian people who are defending the holy sacred Christian and Muslim holy places, and we are here to defend it, and we are ready to die to defend it."

Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said the incursion was intended to demonstrate to Arafat he will be held responsible for terrorist acts against Israelis and hinted more incursions may follow.

"We cannot turn a blind eye to these terror attacks, and the security forces and the IDF will take every step to end the terror," Ben-Eliezer said.

Israeli officials, who asked not to be identified, said that their earlier siege of Arafat's compound had not succeeded in sidelining him as they had hoped. Wednesday's incursion, they said, was intended to demonstrate how powerless the Palestinian leader is.

One of Arafat's bodyguards was killed when Israeli forces stormed the compound overnight Wednesday, and six other people were seriously wounded, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.

Explosions and gunfire could be heard from the compound soon after tanks, bulldozers and armored vehicles entered.

"Arafat is not the target," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Gideon Meir said. "This response is the minimum Israelis can do as an act of self-defense after the massive, vicious terror attacks on civilians."

Palestinian security sources said the third floor of Arafat's office building was destroyed in the shelling and Arafat's office on the second floor was riddled with bullets. Arafat was in the compound during the assault, Palestinian sources said.

A bridge that links Arafat's office to a conference room where he meets with reporters sustained heavy damage, and the Palestinian intelligence building in the compound was destroyed, sources said.

White House reacts with frustration

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat called the operation "a very dangerous escalation." Erakat said he had spoken with Arafat and that he was safe at that time, but "heavy shelling, heavy shooting" could be heard as they spoke.

"I worry about President Arafat's life," Erakat said by phone from Jericho.

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Erakat said about 40 to 50 Israeli military vehicles entered Ramallah from three different directions. Bulldozers were among the vehicles, other Palestinian sources said.

Several Israeli newspapers carried reports saying CIA Director George Tenet had told Arafat on Tuesday that if he did not crack down on terrorist acts, the United States could not persuade Israel to stop its incursions.

Arafat asked Tenet to pressure Israel to stop the incursions and to withdraw the cordons of troops it has stationed around West Bank towns and villages.

Israel Radio quoted Arafat aide Nabil Abu Redeneh as saying Thursday that the United States had given Israel a "green light" to stage incursions. But in Washington, White House officials said the Bush administration was given no notice of the incursion and expressed frustration that it had occurred.

"We are just gathering information about what is happening -- and I am in no way criticizing Israel -- but this is not the path to peace," one senior official said.

Wednesday's attack by a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 17 Israelis, 13 of them soldiers. The bomber detonated a car bomb as it pulled up next to a crowded bus at Megiddo junction in northern Israel. (Full story)

The militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack in a telephone call to a Hezbollah TV station in Lebanon. The report said the name of the bomber would not be disclosed because of the fear of Israeli retaliation against the family but added that the bomber was from the Jenin area in the West Bank.

Israeli officials, however, were quick to blame the Palestinian Authority. Ra'anan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, had promised "severe measures" in retaliation for the attack. (Full story)

Arafat ordered the arrest of Islamic Jihad members responsible for the bombing, Palestinian security sources said. Arafat made the ruling after meeting with the Palestinian Authority Security Council at his Ramallah headquarters.

Later, Israeli military sources said Israeli tanks entered Jenin. Palestinian security sources said at least seven tanks entered the town from two directions. They said Israeli attack helicopters also flew above the town. Israeli forces were still in Jenin on Thursday morning.

Bush condemns bombing

At least 17 Israelis were killed and dozens wounded in Wednesday's terror attack on a crowded bus in northern Israel.  

The suicide car bombing took place after two days of meetings between Tenet and Palestinian and Israeli officials -- and on the 35th anniversary of the beginning of the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

At least 36 people were wounded in Wednesday's terror attack, officials said. The magnitude of the blast and the carnage it caused made it difficult for workers to obtain an accurate count of casualties. (Full story)

President Bush condemned in the "strongest terms" what he called "the brutal terror" attack. The suicide bombing "underscores the importance of the Palestinian Authority developing a security force that can be relied on to stop and prevent attacks," he said. (Full story)

Israeli forces previously stormed Arafat's Ramallah compound, starting a siege on March 29 that ended May 2 after the transfer of six Palestinian militants to a Jericho jail. Five of the six were wanted by Israel in the October killing of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi.

On Monday, the Palestinian Authority refused to follow an order from a top Palestinian court to free one of the six, Ahmad Saadat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Israel said the previous siege on Arafat's compound and the Operation Defensive Shield military campaign in the West Bank were to root out the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure. Palestinians accused Israel of trying to reoccupy Palestinian territories.

Wednesday's car bomb was the deadliest terror attack on Israel since its West Bank military operation, which began after a series of suicide bombings left scores of Israelis dead and maimed.

-- CNN Correspondent Jim Bittermann contributed to this report.




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