Palestinian mediator enters beseiged Palestinian Authority building _ finds no one

Friday, June 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HEBRON, West Bank (AP) _ A former Palestinian Cabinet minister entered the besieged Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank on Friday to negotiate the surrender of 15 wanted men after a four-day standoff but said he could not find anyone inside.

It was possible, Talal Sidr told The Associated Press, that the men were in parts of the heavily damaged four-story building that he was unable to check.

``I didn't see anyone, but that doesn't mean there is no one inside because there are places that are heavily damaged that I couldn't enter,'' he said, shortly after his visit of less than an hour inside the building in Hebron.

The Israeli army had no immediate comment.

With Israeli troops controlling seven of the eight main West Bank cities and towns, the Palestinian leadership issued a statement on Friday condemning the Israeli incursions into Palestinian areas as ``an attempt to sabotage peace efforts.''

The statement, quoted by the Palestinian Wafa news agency, appealed to the world leaders attending the G-8 summit in Canada to ``send observers to the region to ensure implementation of a cease-fire.''

At the hilltop Hebron building, where the regional Palestinian administration is housed, television showed a bulldozer knocking through the wall at the ground level of the fortress-like building. Friday was the fourth day of the Israeli siege of the building.

A day earlier, Israeli helicopters fired four missiles at the structure. Soldiers outside warned that they would go in and extract the gunmen if they did not give themselves up.

``I think they have to surrender and give up,'' Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said on Friday. ``There is no sense for them to fight.''

Sidr, who is from Hebron, said he went in with Israeli permission after discussing the matter with Israeli authorities. He said that after his look around he suggested to the Israelis they end the siege and check inside the building.

Tanks had been firing at the building, and explosions were heard every few minutes at the compound, witnesses said.

The military said about 15 Palestinians wanted by Israel as terrorism suspects were believed holed up inside the squat, unadorned building, which was first used by the British army and handed over, in turn, to Jordan, Israel and then the Palestinians.

``We know that a few wanted persons are inside and we intend to apprehend them,'' army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey told Israel Army Radio. ``We prefer to do it without a battle, but if it proves necessary, there will be one.''

Also Friday, Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin joined more than 1,000 Palestinians at a rally in the Gaza Strip, the first time he has ventured out since Palestinian security officials said six days ago he was ordered to remain at home under house arrest. Palestinian police monitoring the demonstration made no attempt to detain Yassin, whose group has claimed responsibility for numerous suicide bombings and deadly attacks on Israelis.

Yassin said he was unaware of any order against him. ``No one has told me that and that's why I am here today,'' he said.

Also Friday, about 100 foreign activists and Palestinians held a curfew-breaking march in the northern West Bank city of Nablus, holding banners reading ``Pull out of the Palestinian territories'' and chanting. Israeli soldiers watched from rooftops but did not intervene.

Retaliating for two Palestinian suicide bomb attacks that killed 26 Israelis in Jerusalem last week, Israeli forces took control of Palestinian cities and towns, including Hebron, declaring curfews that confined more than 700,000 people to their homes.

Late Thursday the Israeli military said in a statement that soldiers in the West Bank town of Qalqilya ``opened fire'' on a group of people who were outside despite the curfew, wounding three children, one seriously. Palestinians said the seriously wounded child was a 9-year-old boy who was shot in the head and in critical condition.

``The preliminary investigation shows that the soldiers acted improperly, and the army expresses its regret. The investigation continues,'' the statement said.

The incident was apparently a tragic misunderstanding. Palestinian high school seniors are taking standardized final exams this week, and in many places the Israeli military is lifting the curfew to allow them to get to their schools. Israeli Civil Administration spokesman Maj. Peter Lerner confirmed that the intention was to lift the curfew for students in Qalqiliya.

Palestinian officials said people saw the students outside and thought the Israelis had eased the curfew temporarily to allow them to buy supplies, and many went out into the street. There have been several such incidents since Israel took control of the towns.

The curfews have disrupted the final exams, which determine who will get high school diplomas and go on to universities. Palestinian Education Minister Nabil Abu Homos said half of the 29,000 students in the West Bank missed their tests on Thursday.

While furious at the Israelis over their severe measures, Palestinians also directed anger at President Bush.

After calling for replacement of the Palestinian leadership in a speech Monday, Bush followed by refusing to rule out U.S. military action against the Palestinians and threatening to cut off aid.

At the G-8 summit, Bush was asked whether his doctrine on terrorism, which leaves open the possibility of U.S. military action against states supporting terrorists, applied to Arafat. ``I'm never ruling out military. All options are available,'' he said, but added, ``the tool I'm using is diplomatic pressure...''

West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub said it would be ``dangerous'' to equate Arafat with terrorism. ``The Palestinian Authority is not the Taliban movement.''

Israel on Friday lifted its ban on foreign journalists entering major West Bank towns taken over by soldiers in the past 10 days _ except for Hebron, because of the seige.

The ban has vastly curtailed coverage of Israel's widespread military operation, and the local Foreign Press Association appealed Thursday to the army, saying the combination of the zones and curfews affecting Palestinian journalists made coverage impossible.

The order does not apply to Palestinian journalists, who are still required to follow the curfews in effect in the towns. Israelis are barred by the army from entering Palestinian-controlled parts of the West Bank and Gaza, though some Israeli journalists have ignored that rule.