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Ramallah Curfew Lifted Temporarily

Aired April 5, 2002 - 06:28   ET


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: And, of course, we have breaking news to report right now. U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni is now in the West Bank city of Ramallah. He's there to discuss the Middle East crisis with one of the key players in all of this, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Our Michael Holmes is in Ramallah. He joins us live by phone -- Michael, what's happening now? Oh, you're here live -- hi, Michael.


Yeah, I want to bring you up to date. First of all, there are some interesting sights and sounds behind be. The curfew here has again been lifted for the second time in the past week, and people are out shopping and stocking up on whatever items they can still find in stores here for the next hour or hour and a half or so.

Now at Yasser Arafat's compound, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, as you said, General Anthony Zinni, the U.S. special envoy is in there. The best we can make out, he has been in there for well over an hour now. He is there with two security -- American security officers, and is speaking with Yasser Arafat as I'm talking to you here now.

Also inside, by the way, Israel allowing an international Red Cross unit to go in there to distribute food and medicine and carry out health checks on those inside the compound. They are having to wait inside Yasser Arafat's headquarters, though, while the conversations with General Zinni go on. They haven't yet been able to do that check. However, they are planning to.

Obviously a vital meeting here, and the media thought so too. We left in convoy, five armored vehicles from various international news media, to go to the compound today to cover this very significant meeting and Anthony Zinni's arrival at the compound. We got there, we were there for about five minutes or so, and then two army jeeps approached at speed towards us.

They -- some people at the head of the convoy -- there were perhaps 25 journalists there -- they saw the soldiers in the jeeps motion for us to leave. The vast majority of us knew nothing until stun grenades were thrown. At least six, probably seven were thrown into the crowd of journalists, and I had one strike my foot just before it went off. Another one of our crew had one detonate right next to her foot, and her shoes are covered in the remains of that. No one injured in that incident. The troops then forcibly pushing us; in fact, ramming our vehicle to get us out of the area. We obviously wanted to get out and were trying to comply. But you have five armored vehicles trying to reverse up a street, it's a slow process.

As we reversed up, one Israeli soldier fired a baton (ph) round at our vehicle. It hit the windshield, took a crack out of the armored glass in the windshield. And then as we turned around to drive away, two rubber-coated steel bullets were fired into the back of our vehicle, cracking the rear windshield. At no time were we -- most of us -- hear any warning before the first grenade was fired.

Now we tried to get out of the area. We were actually blocked off on several routes. We then regrouped at another area, all of us, and soldiers came and approached our vehicle. They started interviewing some members but not all members of the media. They took press credentials and in some cases passports off some of them.

We understand that one American TV crew has now been escorted from Ramallah. The rest of us were not spoken to. I certainly was not spoken to, and none of our crew was. And a soldier eventually in the back of an APC just said, "Go, go." And that we did.

So certainly a dramatic morning, as the media tried to cover the arrival of General Anthony Zinni at the P.A. headquarters -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Well certainly the Israeli military knew that reporters would be there to cover this event. Why do you think they opened fire on you with these stun grenades?

HOLMES: I think it's probably fair to say that we're not welcome here. We have had our vehicle fired upon, a tire blown out a couple of days ago. Another American network had their armored vehicle disabled by gunfire.

So we're not exactly welcome here, but we have been tolerated by the military that we've come across until today. Why -- what happened at the compound -- there were two jeeps that drove up, as I said, at high speed behind them -- was a blue Mercedes that appeared to us to contain Israeli military officials. Now we were right at an entrance to the compound, and our initial feeling was they were escorting this vehicle which was going to drive into the compound.

At that point, we didn't know who was in the vehicle. They obviously didn't want us to see who was in the vehicle or wanted us out of the way. We were in no way blocking the entrance to the compound, I hasten to add. And as I say, for the vast majority of us, the first thing we knew was when they drove at high speed towards our little line of five vehicles, and then I saw an orange stun grenade come flying out from one of those jeeps.

And then there was a succession of these stun grenade explosions. It wasn't like they threw one, stopped and told us to leave. They came out as everyone was scrambling for the vehicles to get out. I actually ended up in the armored car of one of our competitors who graciously got me to the end of the street before I could rejoin our crew.

COSTELLO: Thank goodness for that.

HOLMES: As I say, our car was fired upon as we were leaving, Carol.

COSTELLO: For those of us who don't know, what are stun grenades? What kind of damage can they inflict?

HOLMES: Probably no physical damage. At first, when one goes off you don't know quite what it is, and that's the whole design of them, is that they're meant to stun people and disorientate them, especially inside a closed area. Outside, they're probably not going to cause anyone any physical harm other than give you a bit of a shock. They're very loud, and they do not give off shrapnel or anything like that.

No injuries, of course, but when you have five or six of them going off within a minute or so around you, that certainly creates a very confusing environment, and initially a frightening one until you realize what they are. And then you sort of realize you're not going to be hurt by these things. But then as we're backing out and we had a baton (ph) round fired directly at the windshield, and then as we turned around -- as we had finally gotten out -- we had two more -- these were rubber-coated steel bullets fired into the rear of our car. We were certainly evacuating the area by that point.

So it was a curious decision to pull the trigger on those particular rounds. The latter ones, that's for sure. Why they threw the grenades without making sure everyone knew what was going on-- we had no idea what these people wanted us to do. And as you say, we certainly were under the impression that the military would expect the media to cover the arrival of General Zinni for such a crucial meeting at these troubled times here.

And we did take the precaution, as we often do around here, of going in a convoy, a safety in numbers strategy that has worked on a couple of other occasions. Other times, we travel on our own in our vehicle, as we did yesterday, with no particular problem. We are routinely turned away from intersections and roadblocks and things like that. But we've not been physically prevented from doing our job, going alternate routes and things like that.

So a very surprising development here. If the jeep had shown up and held up a piece of paper and said, "This is a closed area, get out," everyone would have done so. No one was given the chance to understand what they wanted us to do before the stun grenades were thrown.

And they were thrown into the middle of the group, too. One hit me in the foot, as I say. And I actually heard one of my colleagues yell out to a cameraman, "It's on your camera." So one landed on his camera, which, of course, is right next to his head. He obviously managed to get it off before it detonated. Otherwise, he probably would be having some hearing problems right now.

But no one, from our understanding, hurt. And, as I say, stun grenades, when used in that sort of situation -- if they hit the ground -- do not cause physical harm. They're certainly very loud. I can vouch for that -- Carol.

COSTELLO: I'm sure. Thank you very much, Michael Holmes, reporting live for us from Ramallah. We're glad you're safe this morning. And when Anthony Zinni wraps up his meeting with Yasser Arafat, we'll of course try to get to them to tell you what happened inside Yasser Arafat's compound.




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