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Deal Struck to End Arafat Ramallah Siege

Aired May 1, 2002 - 12:25   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: We are watching movement in Ramallah. We want to get straight away to Matthew Chance who is right near this location where a number of vehicles now are in motion.

Matthew, from your perspective, what are you seeing?

All right. I'm trying to reach Matthew Chance here. He is near this scene in Ramallah. Now, what we are observing here is a line of cars that appear to be headed in one direction or the other, either toward the compound of Yasser Arafat or away from it.

This is all part of the deal that has been brokered between the United States. the Israelis and the Palestinians, essentially to give Yasser Arafat freedom of travel, No. 1, and also to deal with half a dozen suspected terrorists who have been holed up inside.

Let's get to Matthew Chance now in Ramallah.

Matthew, what do you have from there?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Bill. We have a bit of a developing situation, here as you can see. So those are taillights of the 12 or 13 cars we counted coming into the compound of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, of course, under siege in that battered presidential complex since the end of the March.

Our understanding is that these are the cars that will collect the six wanted Palestinians wanted by Israel and transfer them under international guard in accordance with the U.S. plan to a Palestinian prison facility in the West Bank town of Jericho. You can see there some flashing lights there as those cars move into the inner car parking area of that compound.

Just to the right of the picture, if you can move across there, that is the building where Yasser Arafat, we believe, is currently holed up, along with many other people, including those six Palestinians, four of whom, let's remember, have already been convicted in a makeshift Palestinian court of killing Israel's tourism minister last October.

It is difficult for us to say how long this process is going to be taking. Israel Radio has already reported already a delay in this transfer. We have been waiting for some hours longer than we thought we would be, but it does now seem that those cars are waiting to take those Palestinian prisoners to move them out to Jericho into international custody.

Now, once that happens, Israel's defense forces say they will commence as soon as possible their pullout from around Yasser Arafat's compound. They have been preparing to do that for the last few hours. We have been watching them clear up various areas, clear barricades, empty sandbags from observation posts and sniper positions they have been occupying for some time now.

So there is an understanding by the troops here that when the order is given for them to pull out, once those Palestinians wanted by Israel are under firm international guard in Jericho, then they will pull out.

Now, over there, there have been a lot of the negotiations which came to an end a few hours from now between Palestinian officials and security experts from Britain and the United States as part of this U.S. initiative to bring to an end this long-running siege. Those meetings ended about three or four hours ago from now. Israel, through these meetings, has been trying to get guarantees. It wants to ensure that no kind of revolving door situation is allowed to emerge, whereby when they give the order for their troops to leave this tight security cordon around Yasser Arafat's compound, the six men wanted in Israel will simple be allowed to walk free.

The Palestinians, for their part, also have concerns; foremost amongst them, the security of these prisoners when they are under the responsibility of the international team. They have been looking for international -- rather letters of guarantee from the international team that these people will be protected from attacks by Israel, and that they certainly won't be handed over to the jurisdiction of Israel at any point.

So these are the fine details of the agreement, which was agreed by both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaders almost as soon as it was suggested by President Bush of the United States to bring to an end this siege. And it is a developing situation. And it looks like it is going to happen, that these six people are going to come out of this compound.

What will happen -- just to give you an idea of the geography -- where those lights are now, where those cars are parked, they are going to come back out the compound, we are told by the security forces on the ground here, make their way down this road. I can't sense out how clearly you can see the situation there, because we have got failing light here in Ramallah.

But they are going to come down that road where you see that Israeli military vehicle moving along now, make a turn towards us. So, we will be able to see them come literally right in front of this position we are occupying now on their way through to the Jewish settlement of Beit El, a short distance from where I am standing right now, and onward from there through to Jericho, where, of course, they will interred beneath that international security verification guard.

So, we are in a good vantage point here to bring you that developing story -- Bill. HEMMER: Matthew, let's keep it here a moment. There are a number of questions that we must go over, especially for our viewers. I want to talk about the identity of the six in a moment.

But, from your vantage point, how have you been able to observe the number of Israeli troops and tanks still positioned around that compound? And are they only in that particular section of Ramallah that you have seen?


They've tightened their security cordon and made it a smaller cordon in the past 24 hours around the presidential compound here. It is difficult to get a sense of exactly how many personnel are on the ground. We have probably seen three or four tanks in various locations around the key junctions leading up to this. The strategy has been, of course, by the Israelis, to seal off the road junctions, making it very difficult for people to get up towards that inner compound itself, by placing tanks and armored personnel carriers at these junctions.

We don't know, quite frankly, how many Israeli troops there are, personnel there are in positions, in monitoring positions and sniper positions over there near the compound -- Bill.

HEMMER: And, also, the jail in Jericho, why there, have you been told?


Well, the Palestinians suggested a number of options -- or two, rather. They suggested this one in Jericho, another one in Gaza. They are face with a bit of a problem, which is that, throughout the months where there have been attacks by Israeli forces on installations of the Palestinian Authority, one of the things that has been targeted by the Israelis are police stations of the Palestinian Authority and the jails that are attached to them.

So they did not really have many options. They offered one facility in Gaza where they said it would be OK for these personnel to be interred. The other option was Jericho. This is a prison that was built back in the 1930s by the British during their period of mandate here. And it is indeed the prison in Jericho that has been agreed upon by the Israelis and the Palestinians -- Bill.

HEMMER: And, Matthew, let's run through the six quickly to refresh the minds of our viewers.

At least four are wanted by the Israelis, they allege, in connection with the murder of the tourism minister back in mid- October. And, of the remaining two, at least one is said to be tied to the former finance minister for the Palestinian leadership and also a connection to Iran and a shipment that was made in the first part of January, intercepted by Israeli forces.

The fifth person is who, then? CHANCE: The final person there is the leader, the political leader of the PFLP, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Now, that is the party, the faction of the PLO, which these other four people who have been convicted in the makeshift Palestinian court for the killing of the tourism minister, the party to which they belong.

So, he is the political leader of that party. Israel says he is implicated in the killing of the tourism minister. As well, the Palestinians have disputed that. So, this is a situation, this is a person who is very much in dispute. He has not been put on trial by the Palestinians, although they have agreed to transfer him to international custody and to place him under guard in accordance with the U.S. initiative to end the siege over in Jericho.

So, there has been of give-and-take on both sides here. The Israelis have, for the moment, suspended their demands that this man be extradited to Israel for trial in an Israeli court. And the Palestinians, on their, side, have at least initially agreed to inter him pending a possible trial.

HEMMER: Matthew, this final question might be a bit difficult for you to answer. I will go ahead and pose it anyway.

There are some reports that indicate Yasser Arafat, once given that freedom of movement, may head off to Cairo, Egypt. I am not sure what you are hearing about immediate travel plans. But is there talk right now of him going anywhere abroad? Or is it just West Bank and the possibility of Gaza at this point?

CHANCE: Well, Palestinian officials, Bill, have made it clear to us that, at some point, Yasser Arafat is going to want to travel to the Arab countries, to Cairo in Egypt, of course, but also to European countries as well to kind of garner support for his Palestinian cause.

Initially, though, it is not clear just how much freedom of movement Yasser Arafat is going to be granted. We are told by the Israelis that, in principle, of course, as soon as their tanks leave, he will be relatively free to move around the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, or at least those parts of it that are under Palestinian control.

Whether he will be permitted, though, to move outside those areas into other countries or whether he intends to do that, in fact, is something we simply don't know at this stage. But, clearly, Palestinian officials have told us that it is something he intends to do at some stage. When it will happen, we can't say, Bill.

HEMMER: Indeed. Matthew, thanks -- Matthew Chance.

It is growing dark there, right about 7:30 in the evening in Ramallah. If there is any more movement in and around that compound, certainly we will keep a very close eye of it. So, too, will Matthew. We will be back in touch with him as we get developments here.




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