In Nablus' embattled Old City, a trail of destruction

Tuesday, April 9, 2002

NABLUS, West Bank -- Brandishing the bandaged stump that remained of his right arm after an emergency amputation in a mosque-turned-field hospital in the ruined heart of Nablus' Old City, the teen-age Palestinian gunman was still defiant.

"I will keep fighting until we are liberated," 19-year-old Abed Taqouk said Monday, coolly smoking a cigarette as the groans of dozens of wounded rose around him.

Only yards away, Israeli troops were making their way through the winding alleyways of the casbah, kicking down doors and combing blasted-out buildings in their search for any fighter able to wield a weapon.

When Israeli troops and tanks rolled into the West Bank's largest city -- a stronghold of Palestinian militant groups -- last week, its gunmen and wanted fugitives ran for the casbah, a maze of narrow streets, staircases and covered tunnels.

The Israelis rained tank shells, heavy machine-gun fire and missiles from helicopter gunships down on them, bottling up the fighters in a few square blocks of the Old City's mosque-dotted Yasmin quarter.

Middle of war zone

Fighting still raged in the casbah's center Monday, with the staccato of heavy machine-gun fire and the roar of tank shells echoing against the surrounding hills. As Israeli troops took control of the outer edges of the Old City, a small group of journalists picked their way into the old quarter and spent two hours walking the casbah's debris-covered streets.

Civilians, trapped in their homes for days by street battles, called out from behind barred windows, still afraid to come outside. "I need my heart medicine!" shouted one man. "I don't have any food for my children!" a woman cried out.

Underfoot was the detritus of fighting -- spent cartridges, pipe bombs and homemade land mines -- mixed with a scatter of everyday objects: women's plastic sandals, a child's English copybook with neatly penned notes on plural verb forms, abandoned sacks of bread and fruit.

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