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Israelis pull out of Arafat compound

A Palestinian policeman walks by a damaged building in Arafat's compound.
A Palestinian policeman walks by a damaged building in Arafat's compound.  

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- Israeli forces pulled out of the compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the West Bank town of Ramallah on Thursday morning after storming the complex hours earlier, Israeli military sources said.

The siege on Arafat's compound followed Wednesday's attack by a Palestinian suicide car bomber that killed 17 Israelis on a bus in northern Israel.

Arafat emerged from the compound a short time after the pullout, denouncing the Israeli incursion.

"It is a message for the whole international world to see the fascism and this aggression against the headquarters of the Palestinian people," said a defiant Arafat, surrounded by reporters. "No one can defeat the Palestinian people who are defending the holy sacred Christian and Muslim holy places, and we are here to defend it and we are ready to die to defend it."

One of Arafat's bodyguards was killed when Israeli forces stormed the compound overnight, and six other people were seriously wounded, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

Explosions and gunfire could be heard from the compound soon after the tanks, bulldozers and armored vehicles entered.

"Arafat is not the target," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Gideon Meir said. "This response is the minimum Israelis can do as an act of self-defense after the massive, vicious terror attacks on civilians."

Palestinian security sources said the third floor of Arafat's office building was destroyed in the shelling and Arafat's actual office, on the second floor, was riddled with bullets. Arafat was in the compound during the assault, Palestinian sources told CNN.

A bridge that links Arafat's office to a conference room where he meets with reporters sustained heavy damage, and the Palestinian intelligence building in the compound was destroyed, the sources said.

'Not the path to peace'

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat called the operation "a very dangerous escalation." Erakat said he had spoken with Arafat and that he was safe at that time, but "heavy shelling, heavy shooting" could be heard as they spoke.

"I worry about President Arafat's life," Erakat told CNN by phone from Jericho.

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Erakat said about 40 to 50 Israeli military vehicles entered Ramallah from three different directions. Bulldozers were among the vehicles, other Palestinian sources said.

Senior White House officials reacted with a sense of frustration Wednesday night. "We are just gathering information about what is happening -- and I am in no way criticizing Israel -- but this is not the path to peace," one senior official said.

The Ramallah assault followed Wednesday's attack by a Palestinian suicide bomber that killed 17 Israelis, 13 of them soldiers. The bomber detonated a car bomb as it pulled up next to a crowded bus at Megiddo Junction in northern Israel. (Full story)

The Islamic militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack in a telephone call to a Hezbollah TV station in Lebanon. The report said the name of the bomber would not be disclosed because of the fear of Israeli retaliation against the family, but added that the bomber was from the Jenin area.

Israeli officials, however, were quick to blame the Palestinian Authority. Ra'anan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, had promised "severe measures" in retaliation for the attack. (Full story)

Arafat ordered the arrest of Islamic Jihad members responsible for the attack, Palestinian security sources said. The orders were issued after Arafat met with the Palestinian Authority Security Council at his headquarters in Ramallah.

Later, Israeli military sources said Israeli tanks had entered the West Bank town of Jenin in what was being described as a "pinpoint operation." Palestinian security sources said at least seven tanks entered the town from two directions. They said Israeli attack helicopters also were flying above the town. Israeli forces were still in Jenin Thursday morning.

Bush condemns bombing

At least 17 Israelis were killed and dozens wounded in Wednesday's terror attack on a crowded bus at Megiddo Junction in northern Israel.  

The suicide car bombing took place after two days of meetings between CIA Director George Tenet and Palestinian and Israeli officials -- and on the 35th anniversary of the beginning of the 1967 Mideast War, in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.

At least 36 people were wounded in Wednesday's terror attack, officials said. The magnitude of the blast and the carnage it caused made it difficult for workers to obtain an accurate count of casualties. (Full story)

U.S. President Bush condemned in the "strongest terms" what he called "the brutal terror" attack. The suicide bombing "underscores the importance of the Palestinian Authority developing a security force that can be relied on to stop and prevent attacks," he said. (Full story)

Israeli forces previously stormed Arafat's Ramallah compound, starting a siege on March 29 that ended May 2 after the transfer of six Palestinian militants to a Jericho jail. Five of the six were wanted by Israel in the killing last October of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi.

The Palestinian Authority on Monday refused to follow the order of a top Palestinian court to free one of the six, Ahmad Saadat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Israel said the previous siege and the "Operation Defensive Shield" military campaign were to root out the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure. Palestinians accused Israel of trying to reoccupy Palestinian territories.

Wednesday's car bomb was the deadliest terror attack on Israel since Operation Defensive Shield. The Israeli military operation began after a series of suicide bombings left scores of Israelis dead and maimed.

-- CNN Correspondent Jim Bittermann contributed to this report.




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