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Heavy fighting in Nablus and Jenin; offensive likely to be cut

Monday, April 8, 2002

NABLUS, West Bank -- Israeli troops fought fierce battles with Palestinians in the West Bank on Sunday, encountering stiff resistance in the crowded Jenin refugee camp and in the winding alleyways of Nablus' Old City.

At least 14 Palestinians were killed in Nablus, where dead bodies were sprawled along narrow, rubble-filled streets on the 10th day of Israel's offensive to weed out militants staging deadly terror attacks on its civilians.

Early Monday, helicopter gunships fired 18 or 19 missiles into a West Bank refugee camp on the western edge of the city of Jenin, witnesses said. The attack came after troops used loudspeakers to warn militants about the attack and urge them to surrender, witnesses said.

The renewed fighting came as Secretary of State Colin Powell, due in the region this week to try to resolve the crisis, said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has "taken very much to heart" President Bush's call Saturday for an immediate withdrawal from Palestinian areas.

But Powell noted that the Israeli leader has yet to set a timetable for a pullback and Bush has not demanded one. "The president doesn't give orders to a sovereign prime minister of another country," Powell said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Northern border clash

On another front, there were exchanges of fire between Lebanese guerrillas and the Israeli military Sunday. Six Israeli soldiers were wounded, the military said.

In a phone conversation late Sunday, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres asked Powell to intervene with Lebanon and Syria to calm the border. They also discussed possibilities for a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians, according to a statement from Peres' office.

At the beginning of the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, Sharon defended the offensive, calling it "a war for our homes."

"We have no interest in dragging it out, but we have to do the job," Sharon told Israel TV.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council on Sunday insisted on "immediate implementation" of resolutions demanding an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire and an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities without delay.

Israel's U.N. Ambassador Yehuda Lancry said a withdrawal must be "strictly related and connected to certain Palestinian steps -- the cessation of terrorist acts, the meaningful cease-fire."

With international pressure mounting, there were hints of friction between the Israeli government and its military command.

Officers sought more time for the West Bank military operation, but Cabinet ministers talked of bringing it to an end.

Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said the military should operate as long as possible to "clean out terrorism" in the West Bank, but acknowledged that in light of Bush's demand, "our hourglass is running out."

However, the army's Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz told the Cabinet he needed eight weeks to complete the job, according to Israel Radio.

"The critical element is time," he said later in a briefing to reporters. "We need time to get to all the centers of terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza."

Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, chief of military planning, warned that if the army pulls out too soon, "then another series of devastating terror attacks will hit Israel's cities and streets. And then we'll go (back) in."

Israeli troops have taken over most Palestinian population centers in the West Bank in their 10-day-old offensive, Israel's biggest in two decades. But the fighters in Jenin and Nablus have prevented the Israelis from taking full control of the cities and conducting house-to-house searches for militants, as has been the case elsewhere in the West Bank.

Powell said both sides would have to do more to end the fighting.

"Until the violence goes down at least to a level where you can see that both sides are acting in a responsible way and trying to cooperate in a cease-fire, you're not going to get to a peace agreement," Powell said.

He said he would meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "if circumstances permit" -- depending on security, access and the meeting agenda.

Israeli tanks and troops maintained their positions just outside Arafat's office in the town of Ramallah, but for the fourth straight day the fighting was focused on Nablus and Jenin in the northern part of the West Bank.

Palestinians said gunmen held Israeli troops at bay on the edge of the Old City in Nablus, with its winding, dusty alleys and close-packed buildings, ideal locations for snipers. Israel called in attack helicopters to fight the entrenched gunmen.

Israeli tanks were shelling targets in Nablus on Sunday afternoon, witnesses said. At least 14 Palestinians were killed during the day's fighting, Palestinians said.

Nablus Governor Mahmoud Aloul said there were dead bodies in an old mosque and 65 of the wounded were receiving treatment there because ambulances could not get in.

Among those killed Sunday was Ahmed Tabouk, 38, a militia leader linked to Arafat's Fatah movement. His body was in a field as gunbattles kept Palestinians from retrieving it.

It was a similar scene in the Nablus streets, where Palestinians could not remove the dead bodies of fallen fighters because of the intense shooting. The streets are carpeted with fragments of stone and cement that have been blasted from buildings, and the Palestinians have set up burning tire barricades to obscure the vision of Israeli troops.

"We have found explosives laboratories, including one which was very advanced and well equipped, with a production line from the raw materials to the finished product," said Israeli Col. Aviv Kochavi, head of the paratroops brigade fighting in the Old City.

"We are moving forward slowly but surely, mostly on foot," he said. "Here and there we managed to get armored vehicles in, where the street was wide enough."

Israel has barred reporters from Nablus and other areas where the military is operating in the West Bank, though the measure has not been enforced consistently.

There was also fierce fighting in the Jenin refugee camp, 25 miles north of Nablus, where the militant Hamas group said one of its local leaders, Ashraf Abu Al Haijga, was killed in a gunfight with the Israelis.

Israeli soldiers fought their way to the center of the Jenin camp Sunday morning, Israel Radio reported.

Army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey told The Associated Press that "we are on the verge of ending the fighting in the refugee camp." But he added that soldiers would seek to round up militants and would not immediately leave the area. "The resistance was very tough, perhaps tougher than expected," he said.

In the camp, a leader of the militant Hamas, Abdel Salaam, said people are confined to their homes. "We are talking to each other through windows only when the shelling stops," he said in a call on his mobile phone.

Since the Israeli incursion began March 29, more than 95 Palestinians have been killed in West Bank fighting, along with more than 10 Israeli soldiers. Also, 1,413 Palestinians have been detained, including 361 who were on Israel's wanted lists, and more than 1,400 rifles have been confiscated, the military said in a statement.

In Bethlehem, a standoff between Israeli forces and gunmen and clerics holed up in the Church of the Nativity continued for a sixth day. Through the night, Israeli soldiers using loudspeakers demanded that the gunmen surrender, but they remained inside the church marking the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

In Gaza, meanwhile, Israeli soldiers shot and killed two Palestinians who were planting a large bomb near a Jewish settlement, the military said.

Also, guerrillas in Lebanon opened fire on Israeli border posts, wounding six soldiers, including four women, the military said. The Israelis responded with artillery and tank fire. Sharon charged that Iran and Syria were trying to widen the Palestinian-Israeli fighting to another front, and Mofaz said Israel would hit back at Lebanese power centers if "red lines are crossed."


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