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Israeli Forces Enter Ramallah

Aired June 9, 2002 - 22:03   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, once again, back to the breaking news from the Middle East. Israeli forces backed up by more than 100 tanks and armored personnel carriers are entering Ramallah in the West Bank. Gunfire can be heard across the city.

Israel says it's an operation aimed at arresting suspected terrorists.

CNN's Matthew Chance is in Ramallah right now in central Ramallah, joining us by telephone.

Matthew, what more do you see right now from your position?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, from our vantage point here, we can see a number of armored personnel carriers making their way through the streets of central Ramallah. Some of them have taken up positions outside sort of key junctions and installations. We also know from eye witnesses elsewhere in the city that a number of tanks and armored personnel carriers have taken up positions outside the presidential compound of Yasser Arafat.

Yasser Arafat is inside. We've been unable to confirm reports, though, that had been carried by the Reuters news agency, that a tank shell had been fired at the compound. As far as can make out, there's been no such firing taking place on this occasion. I have been speaking to the Israeli defense force, the Israeli military. They said that this is likely to be a short operation. They say they're acting on what they call accurate intelligence against terrorist infrastructure in the city. They say they have a list of names of people they want to arrest, and they're going about doing that. They also say they're looking for explosives, bomb factories and weapons caches, Carol.

LIN: Matthew, how active are the militant groups in Ramallah?

CHANCE: Well, not as active as in other places, simply because of the fact that they're very aware that the Israelis can come in at any time and arrest them. And certainly, they've been doing that. But certainly, there are representatives of the various different militant groups in Ramallah, although it couldn't really be said to be sort of a center of militants' activity in the West Bank. In fact, to the contrary, it's an area of the West Bank which is a relatively liberal society. LIN: Matthew, we're looking at some live pictures right now of armored personnel carriers on the move. Do you have any idea where they might be heading?

CHANCE: It's difficult to say. I mean, they came in within the last few hours from various entry points into the city. It's not possible for us to confirm at this stage whether they are now leaving. Certainly, we haven't heard of exactly what they've been targeting, what they've been hitting, what they've been -- where these people are. They say that they've been targeting in the city.

All we've heard, though, is quite a lot of heavy machine gun fire coming from armored personnel carriers and tank shells. I heard a tank shell being fired earlier, as helicopter gun ships circled in the air above. It's difficult for us to say though exactly the objective of this -- of the tanks are now.

LIN: So Matthew, what are the chances that Yasser Arafat really is the target of this military operation?

CHANCE: Well, I think the chances that he is the target in the sense that the Israelis want to kill him, are very slight, I mean because obviously they have the capability to do that at any point. And the fact that he's still alive indicates to us that it's not the intention of the Israelis to kill him.

Obviously, what they're trying to do, though, is to show the Palestinian leadership, the Palestinian people here in Ramallah, that they are capable and very willing to move into this West Bank City at will and conduct operations, Carol.

LIN: All right, thank you very much, Matthew Chance in central Ramallah right now. Just to recap very quickly, Israeli defense forces tell us that this will be a short operation into the West Bank city of Ramallah. We understand from our own sources that, just as Matthew was just reporting, that helicopter gunships are hovering overheard. Some 100 tanks and armored personnel carriers are moving freely about the city of Ramallah, as well as surrounding the city itself and surrounding Yasser Arafat's compound.

According to Matthew Chance, Yasser Arafat is indeed inside that compound right now. CNN is also trying to reach the Palestinians -- the Palestinian Authority to get some official reaction here. We have not had any luck yet, but we are hearing now from the White House.

CNN's White House correspondent Kelly Wallace joins us by telephone from Washington, D.C.

Kelly, what is the Bush administration saying about this military activity?

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, the White House certainly watching the situation closely. And we spoke with Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary, who said "we are monitoring the situation and have no immediate comment." President Bush, of course, back at the White House, after spending the weekend at Camp David. We are told he was notified by Steve Hadley, the deputy national security adviser this evening about this activity.

Asked if the United States was given any heads up that the Israelis would take this action, whatever action that might be going on this evening, a senior administration official told us no, the U.S. was not given any advance word. And asked if this complicates, of course, Monday's meeting between President Bush and the Israeli prime minister, this official telling me "let's see what happens here." This official going on to say that sometimes Israeli defending itself has launched "quick incursions."

Now Carol, it's a remarkable situation. You see, of course, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister arriving early this morning in the Washington area. He is actually spending the evening at Blair House, directly across the street from the White House. In advance of his meeting tomorrow with Mr. Bush, it will be the sixth meeting between the two men. And it was clear Mr. Sharon, in an op-ed in Sunday's "New York Times," making it very, very clear. He was saying that the Israelis would not engage in any political discussions with the Palestinians until the violence came to an end.

And the situation, Carol, somewhat familiar to Wednesday evening, of course. That's when we saw Israeli tanks and artillery. That's when they were shelling Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah, that in response to, you'll recall, that suicide car bomber that blew up a bus, killing at least 17 people. That evening, there was great frustration at the White House about exactly what was going on. U.S. officials telling us that the United States was not asked for, and did not give a green light to the Israelis for that action. There was a lot of concern. And even, I talked to officials the next day who said they simply did not know what the Israelis were doing that evening with that activity.

So a lot of concern watching the situation. And of course, this all coming on the eve of Mr. Bush's meeting with the prime minister, Carol.

LIN: Kelly, were your sources at all surprised that this happened on the eve of this big meeting tomorrow? And did anybody express to the Israelis to at least show restraint prior to this meeting between the president and the prime minister?

WALLACE: Well, at least one source I've was talking to seemed to express a little surprise in the fact that it appears the United States was not given any heads up. Asked if the United States is angry at the administration is frustrated, this source would not respond in that way. And of course, you can expect that there are contacts going on between U.S. officials and Israeli officials, but no actual message or at least according to this source, message of encouraging the Israelis to exercise restraint. Obviously, this situation, the White House is watching very closely. And it has to be concerned, Carol, the administration's certainly concerned that it's coming with this meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon tomorrow.

U.S. officials were certainly hoping the president would have this meeting, listen to the Israeli prime minister, and then soon after that, Mr. Bush would come forward with some type of plan, some type of outline to pave the way forward for the Israelis and the Palestinians on some path to peace, Carol.

LIN: We'll see what happens. Thank you very much. Kelly Wallace on the telephone from Washington, D.C. with reaction from the White House.




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