TWO Palestinian officials survive attack; Arafat calls for foreign intervention

Saturday, August 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ Marwan Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian leader, narrowly escaped with his life Saturday after two missiles landed near his car in what Palestinians called an assassination attempt.

Later, a senior Palestinian official said Yasser Arafat sent urgent letters to President Bush and leaders in Russia, China and the European Union calling for intervention in the conflict with the Israelis.

Arafat told Bush the conflict had become extremely dangerous and the situation demanded urgent American intervention, the official said.

``From here in the Holy Land we urge you to take up your responsibility regarding the peace process which your father started and to revive the hope of keeping this process alive,'' he quoted the letter as saying.

Barghouti, an outspoken leader of Arafat's Fatah movement, was shaken but unhurt in the attack in the West Bank. A Palestinian security official traveling in a second car was injured.

The Israeli military had no immediate comment on the attack in the town of Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem. Israeli security sources said the target was not Barghouti but the wounded official. They accused him of killing several Israelis over the past few months, including Binyamin Zeev Kahane, son of the assassinated anti-Arab leader Rabbi Meir Kahane.

Military sources said they ``did not in any way try to kill Marwan Barghouti.''

Barghouti, who has received extensive media coverage with his calls for Palestinian resistance against Israel, said he was leaving his office in Ramallah when the attack took place. Palestinian security officials were traveling with him in a second car.

The first missile exploded in front of the two cars, prompting the men in both vehicles to flee. A second missile hit the car belonging to the security officials, smashing in its roof, sending dark plumes of smoke in the air, and injuring the one man as he tried to make his escape.

The missiles were fired from Psagot, a nearby Jewish settlement which overlooks Ramallah, Palestinian security officials at the scene said.

``We were holding a meeting in the office. As soon as we finished we left the building in two cars,'' Barghouti told The Associated Press by telephone.

``If they didn't miss us with the first missile we might be dead by now. The first missile gave us the time to run away from the car.''

Hospital officials identified the injured security official as Mohanned Abu Halaweh, a member of Arafat's elite presidential guard, Force 17. Doctors said he suffered light burns.

Israeli security sources identified him as Mohanned Diria but said he was also known as Abu Halaweh. They said he was directly responsible for the killing of at least eight Israelis, including Binyamin Kahane and his wife, Talia, who were ambushed on a West Bank road on Dec 31.

The Israelis have carried out repeated attacks against suspected Palestinian militants during the 10 months of fighting. Israel says it targets Palestinians who have carried out or planned attacks against Israel, as well as those who are preparing attacks.

The raids have provoked outrage among the Palestinians, and have been condemned by the United States, the European Union and other nations. If Israel was indeed targeting Barghouti, he would be the most prominent Palestinian leader to come under attack.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of targeting all Palestinians.

``Sharon and his government are declaring this war against everybody, the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people,'' he said at the scene. ``This was a clear assassination attempt.''

Palestinian witness Khaled Eisa said he was standing outside his house when Barghouti and his entourage passed by.

``Marwan came down the road in his jeep and waved at us. As soon as he got to the end of the road I saw a missile flying toward me,'' Eisa said. ``We heard the second one and ran up to the house, and people began shouting.''

Barghouti later called on Abu Halaweh in a local hospital, and was congratulated by well wishers on his lucky escape.

Speaking to reporters Barghouti said the attack was meant to silence the Palestinian uprising. ``It will increase and escalate in the coming days and weeks in response to this,'' he said.

As part of its response to the incident, Fatah's local wing hastily organized a march through the streets of Ramallah. Joining the march, Barghouti held onto part of a giant Palestinian flag and walked beside Fatah gunmen who chanted slogans and fired into the air.

In the Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis, meanwhile, a Palestinian died in what appeared to be the premature explosion of a bomb he was preparing for use against Israelis.

Hospital officials identified the victim as 25-year-old Suleiman Shabeer, a local Fatah activist. Local mosques broadcast news of his death through their loudspeakers and said he died ``in a holy mission.''

Earlier the Israeli army briefly sent tanks and bulldozers into Palestinian-controlled territory, destroying a police post, the Palestinians said.

The operation was in response to Palestinian mortar fire from the post, which lightly injured a father and son living in the nearby Kfar Darom settlement, the Israeli army said.