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Crisis in the Middle East

Aired April 12, 2002 - 15:01   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer in Jerusalem. Welcome to our continuing special coverage of the crisis in the Middle East.

During the course of the next hour, we'll go throughout the region. We'll find out what happened today in Jerusalem. Yet another suicide bombing in a crowded open air marketplace. We will also go to Ramallah. That's where Yasser Arafat remains. Big question as of right now: Will the visiting Secretary of State Colin Powell meet with Yasser Arafat tomorrow, as scheduled? That question very much open right now. We'll also have all of the other developments, including Palestinian charges of an Israeli massacre at the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank. A full hour of coverage, including from our live studio audience. They'll have reaction. They'll have questions. They have gathered in Atlanta.

First, will Secretary of State Colin Powell go forward and meet on this day, tomorrow, with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat? Our State Department correspondent Andrea Koppel is covering the secretary's visit to the region. She joins us now live from Jerusalem -- Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, good evening. No decision yet. We do know that it is up in the air right now, following today's suicide bombing here in Jerusalem. Secretary Powell himself was sitting on the tarmac literally about to take off in a helicopter for a tour of Israel's northern border with Lebanon when he got word through one of his aides, and he himself then flew over the attack site, which was literally a stone's throw from the tarmac where he had been.

Following the news of the attack, Secretary Powell spoke with Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The White House obviously very much engaged in all of this. And the decision is being made right now behind the scenes. They are evaluating, according to State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, they are looking at the situation right now. They are considering what Secretary Powell wants to do in terms of where we are and where we stand.

Obviously, Secretary Powell over the strong objections of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, had intended to meet with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, who hasn't seen anyone beyond some journalists and his own aides most recently since he was first put under siege by the Israelis two weeks ago. Secretary Powell having just come off a swing through the Middle East region, having met with a number of Arab leaders, all of whom, Wolf, told had him that Secretary Powell must sit down with the Palestinian leader, must show the international community that the Bush administration recognizes Yasser Arafat as the only leader of the Palestinian people.

And so for the Bush administration, this is a very difficult situation. It's really only day one of Secretary Powell's peace making mission here on the ground in Israel, and after having met with the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, he got the cold shoulder on that front. Not getting any kind of a firm timeline for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank towns and cities there. And so, things have not gone well.

And Secretary Powell, Wolf, has said that he would stay here as long as it took, as long as he felt he could try to make some progress. But right now, whether or not he is going to meet with Yasser Arafat, the other key ingredient in trying to bring an end to all this violence, remains to be seen -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Andrea, from Jerusalem, just as that bombing occurred around 4:15 in the afternoon local time, the secretary of state went up to the northern Israeli border with Lebanon and actually flew over the site of the suicide bombing, the Mahane Yehuda marketplace in the central part of Jerusalem. What was the purpose of the secretary's visit to northern Israel?

KOPPEL: Well, the U.S. has made a point of expressing its concerns, Wolf, that due to the renewed shelling on the border there with Lebanon, that there were really concerns -- and they're concerns that are shared by the Israeli government -- that this somewhat self- contained conflict right now within Israel and the Palestinian territories stands a very real risk of spreading beyond Israel's borders.

Obviously, for 20 years Israeli troops had occupied Lebanon, and then in May of 2000 withdrew all of their forces, and now it appears that at least the U.S. is claiming that the Syrians and the Iranians has been continuing to support the Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, who are trying -- and again, in the opinion of the United States -- to provoke Israel into a counter-attacking, which it's done.

So Secretary Powell flew up there as a former military man himself, four-star general. He's somebody who likes to roll up his sleeves and see situations with his own eyes, and he flew up there to get a briefing, which he did, and had actually intended to get much closer to the border -- he was about eight miles away -- when, obviously, today's suicide attack changed all of that, and he came back here to Jerusalem -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Andrea Koppel, she's covering the secretary of state's visit to this part of the world. Thanks for that report.

Once again, earlier today, six Israelis killed in that suicide bombing in the central marketplace in Jerusalem. The female suicide bomber herself, the Palestinian woman dead in that operation. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a division affiliated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement claiming responsibility for this latest attack.

Let's go to the White House, our White House correspondent Kelly Wallace is standing by, where we are hearing some different words, some different tones coming from the White House press secretary today -- Kelly, aren't we?

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We certainly are, Wolf. Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman, using the words "homicide bombing" to condemn the latest attack on Friday in Jerusalem. The administration and others have for many weeks been calling these suicide bombing attacks. The administration now calling them "homicide bombings."

When asked why the administration has decided to change its language, if you will, Fleischer said it's simply a reflection of what the president believes is happening on the ground, that he believes these attacks are acts of murder committed against innocent Israeli civilians.

And Wolf, following up on your conversation there with Andrea, the head line really continues to be here in diplomatic language that Powell's meeting with Yasser Arafat is, quote, "being reassessed." One senior official telling CNN the focus will be an eye on the day's events, what happens on this day. Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman, making it very, very clear a bit earlier during his daily briefing that the president is giving wide latitude to Secretary Powell to carry out this mission, but that Mr. Bush is also looking for actions on this day from Yasser Arafat.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: As of this morning, the meeting was planned. As I said, the president has given flexibility to this mission; it's flexible all along. But the president is very troubled by what happened, and the president believes that if Yasser Arafat meant what he committed in the Oslo Accords, to denounce terrorism, that today would be a particularly apt today for Yasser Arafat to publicly express himself in denunciation of this terrorist attack, and to show leadership.


WALLACE: And Wolf, Fleischer refused to say if the administration is now making that a pre-condition for a meeting with the secretary of state, but clearly the administration trying to put more pressure on the Palestinian leader.

President Bush will be leaving in about a half-hour from now, headed to the Camp David presidential retreat. We'll have to see if he responds to any questions reporters will certainly shout about these latest developments.

We know Mr. Bush was, in fact, having a National Security Council briefing, getting the latest on the situation in the Middle East earlier this morning, when he was handed a note and was alerted about this latest attack in Jerusalem. The president then having his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, issue a statement on his behalf condemning the attack, saying there are people who want to disrupt Secretary Powell's mission, but that President Bush will not be deterred.

There's the statement. "The president condemns this morning's homicide bombing in Jerusalem. There are clearly people in the region who want to disrupt Secretary Powell's mission." The statement goes on to say: "The president will not be deterred from seeking peace despite this attack. There are people who don't want peace" -- the statement continues -- "and the president wants peace. And he'll make every effort to seek peace, and that's why the secretary is in the region."

Again, though, a very big decision facing this Bush administration, whether Secretary Powell should, in fact, meet with Yasser Arafat, implications certainly for the rest of Powell's mission in the Middle East -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I think it's fair to say, Kelly, that the final decision will come from the secretary himself. He's here. He's in Jerusalem. He's on the ground. He'll make that critical decision, whether to go forward with the meeting.

But back in Washington, a number of members of the U.S. Congress are weighing in, speaking out saying Powell should not meet with Arafat, especially in the aftermath of today's latest suicide bombing here in Jerusalem. How much of an impact do you sense that's having on the top administration officials?

WALLACE: Well, Wolf, you know this White House very well. This White House likes to say that the president is not responding from any criticism whatsoever, that he is going to adhere to his principles and go along with the advice of his top advisers, as you said. It is very clear the president trying to give as much flexibility as possible to Secretary Powell to make the final decision in the end, but this administration has clearly heard from a lot of people who think that Yasser Arafat does not deserve a meeting, that this would in some way be rewarding acts of terror, as that Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade is claiming responsibility, a group linked to Yasser Arafat's organization.

So definitely pressure coming from Democrats, from Republicans. In the end, though, the White House will say it will be Secretary Powell's determination. A definite balancing act, though, Wolf, because on the one hand, this president has said that Yasser Arafat has not earned his trust, has not done enough, has not come out and publicly condemned acts of terror.

On the other hand, the administration is saying he's the leader of the Palestinian people, and the thinking is he's the only one, really, at this point in time, who can make any deal with the Israelis to try to get back to the bargaining table. So a balancing act indeed, and a difficult decision for the White House -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A difficult decision, an agonizing decision with enormous consequences on all sides.

Kelly Wallace, thanks for joining us on the White House.

Earlier today, in the late afternoon, local time, that suicide bombing attack occurred near the Mahane Yehuda market, the open air market in central Jerusalem. CNN's Jason Bellini happened to be right near the scene at that time, preparing -- doing some reporting, getting ready for a report. I want to go to some videotape that shows where Jason Bellini was at that very moment.


JASON BELLINI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: ... whole story, by this point -- let's grab the tripod. Grab the tripod. Grab the tripod. Here.

What's going on? What do you see? What do you see?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know. You see something?

BELLINI: Come with me.


BLITZER: And Jason Bellini joins us now live from Jerusalem. Jason, how terrified were you at that moment?

BELLINI: It was terrifying, it was more disorienting than anything else. And when we first heard the blast, to be honest we weren't exactly sure what it was. We didn't want to believe, I think, that this was another bombing. Everyone froze for just a moment, as you probably saw there in the video, and then people started moving. People started running.

The people in the market were actually fairly calm as they evacuated the market area. The market -- the market had barriers on either side of this pedestrian walkway where the market was located, and there were two guards before this bombing. There were two guards standing there. Both had large guns, big guards, and they were -- they were out of the way, but people had to sort of file through these two blockades.

And -- but as we were leaving, people were coming toward us, the walking wounded. We saw some of just gruesome, gruesome injuries coming our way. And at that point trying to figure out where the best place to be was. We didn't know where the blast was at that particular moment.

My translator and I, we walked out into the street and made our way across the street where we saw the bus with those shattered windows, and it was of course obvious at that point what had happened, that there had been another suicide attack. And we found out shortly thereafter that it wasn't on the bus itself, but right next to that -- the suicide attacker struck right next to the bus, or as she was getting onto the bus.

And the victims, people who were there waiting at that bus stop, many of whom had their groceries. The market was actually fairly active this afternoon around 4:00 o'clock. Many people going picking up their groceries, because the shops were closing for the evening shortly thereafter, just after sundown for sabbath. So people had their groceries, they were making -- and this mass of people that were moving around, that people had their bags of groceries still.

I still remember seeing next to the bus, apparently where the blast occurred, this watermelon that had been split asunder and thinking, you know, what kind of damage that would cause to people who were there.

We also saw bodies around the bus. It was just a horrifying scene, and it took several minutes before the ambulances arrived, before the police, before the military began pushing everyone back. As you can imagine, just those first few minutes after something like this occurs is just a frantic, frantic scene.

BLITZER: And before, Jason, the so-called first responders arrived, the ambulances, the medics, the police officers and others who got to the scene, the rescue workers, you said that there was a relatively calm situation. Elaborate a little bit. Are Israelis just used to this kind of thing?

BELLINI: Well, I don't know how anyone could be used to something like that, but the people were being fairly orderly in moving out, and I did see a number of civilians that were there helping the walking wounded. Some men picked up -- picking up some people and helping to move them out of the way, those who weren't so seriously injured that they needed to wait for the medics to arrive.

I think that everyone was shocked at first, but then people were dealing -- people dealt with the situation not frantically. That was my observation, that people had different roles that they accepted. Before the emergency services arrived, people were just lending a hand, or if they didn't want to be near the scene, they just backed off and they were able to go down the street.

BLITZER: Jason Bellini, thanks for joining us. And very quickly, I assume you're OK, right?

BELLINI: I'm just fine. I was in the market. I was about half a block away, thankfully.

BLITZER: Well, thankfully you are OK, our crew is OK, and thank you very much for that excellent eyewitness account. We'll be back to you, of course, throughout the day and evening.

I want to go to Ramallah now, where CNN's Michael Holmes is standing by. He has been there now nor weeks. That's where Yasser Arafat is holed up as well, in what was his once elaborate headquarters; now it's shrunk -- basically down to what, Michael, to a room or two rooms? Set the scene for us. What's happening in Ramallah now?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's more than two rooms, Wolf. There's several hundred people in there at the moment. When we were in there -- gosh, it must be a week or so ago, maybe more, the time flies -- what you have there is a building which has a central entrance door and then there's two sides to it, up two different staircases. He has much more than two rooms to move around with, but I tell you, that's the only building that is untouched by battle scars.

The rest of the compound has holes in it from tank shells, gunfire pock marks from heavy caliber machine guns. The exterior walls -- or, rather, the perimeter wall around this compound, which is several buildings, has been knocked down by bulldozers and tanks in many places. The place is essentially wrecked, and would probably, from my observation, need to be completely rebuilt. The same goes for the preventive security headquarters, which also has been pretty much rendered useless by rockets and tank fire and machine gunfire as well.

Part of what the Palestinians complain about is that this military action by the Sharon government is leaving them without a Palestinian Authority with which to carry out actions against terrorists if that were to be the end result of these negotiations. They also complain that the infrastructure of the West Bank itself, right down to running the city and building the roads, has also been destroyed. Municipal offices have been trashed. And they say there is not much left with which to work.

Now, on that same sort of issue and how that has provoked anger among Palestinian representatives, I can tell you that the three-man Palestinian negotiating committee met with Anthony Zinni, the U.S. special envoy, this evening in Jericho on the West Bank. Now we are told by a very senior sores that during that meeting, Anthony Zinni got a telephone call. On the other end of the line was Colin Powell. Zinni then left the room, had a conversation with Colin Powell before rejoining the meeting.

Now, as a result of that meeting -- we don't know all the details, of course, but one thing that came out of it is that we are told by senior Palestinians that a condemnation of terror, which of course is what the U.S. wants from Yasser Arafat, will not, in his words, be possible. It will at this moment be highly unlikely to get a condemnation of terror attacks like the one that took place in Jerusalem today while Yasser Arafat is surrounded by tanks and troops and while the many West Bank towns and cities -- in fact, all major towns and cities are still occupied by Israeli forces. They say it's just not going to happen.

And if Colin Powell goes there expecting to get Yasser Arafat to say publicly that he condemns terror, he's not going to get it. That's what we are told at this stage. Anything can happen in the next 12 hours or so before that planned meeting, if as you have been discussing, that meeting goes ahead. There is now some doubt that it will.

Colin Powell is going to have an interesting trip through Ramallah coming by road. He's going to see this town that's been largely wrecked, and he'll see plenty of tanks and APCs himself. In the background, there's a tank rolling by behind us about half a mile away. There's been a couple of loud explosions in Ramallah tonight and some small arms fire. So action still continues here. And just one more thing, Wolf. We've heard from security source in Bethlehem, they say, they claim that commando style troops are approaching the compound, the Church of the Nativity, where of course armed Palestinians are holed up and surrounded by Israeli forces. No comment on that from the Israeli military at the moment, but these security sources tell us they are seeing men in black and black balaclavas and carrying weapons. So just what to make of that, we don't know as claim and counterclaim continues in the region, Wolf.

BLITZER: Michael Holmes standing by in Ramallah with that report. And we'll be monitoring those talks under way in Jericho on the West Bank involving the special U.S. Middle East envoy retired General Anthony Zinni with the Palestinian delegation, including Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Mohammed Dahlan, and the chief Palestinian security executive. We'll see if that meeting does, in fact, set the stage for Secretary of State Powell to travel tomorrow, Saturday, to Ramallah, to meet with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Michael Holmes, thanks for that report. We'll be back to you when we know more about the outcome of that meeting in Jericho.

We're going to take a quick break.




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