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Evacuation order for Arafat compound

Palestinians protest Arafat siege

Palestinians demonstrating in support of Yasser Arafat hold his picture and raise their weapons Saturday night in Gaza City.
Palestinians demonstrating in support of Yasser Arafat hold his picture and raise their weapons Saturday night in Gaza City.

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CNN exclusive video of Israeli gunfire at the compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, West Bank (September 20)
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RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- With Israeli troops surrounding Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound poised for a possible assault, several hundred Palestinian protesters defied a curfew Saturday night and took to the streets of two West Bank cities to support Arafat.

The military operation to isolate Arafat began hours after a suicide bombing on a bus Thursday in Tel Aviv left six people and the attacker dead. An Israeli policeman was also killed Wednesday in a suicide bombing at a bus stop near the Israeli town of Umm el-Fahm.

According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, two demonstrators were killed by gunfire in Ramallah, one in Tulkarem and one at a refugee camp near Nablus. At least 25 others were wounded, according to the Red Crescent.

In Ramallah, about 1,000 people gathered in the main square dispersed into surrounding streets when Israeli tanks approached. The demonstrations continued into the early morning hours of Sunday.

Arafat remained holed up inside his office in one of three buildings still standing in the compound.

Earlier in the evening, the Israeli military, via loudspeakers and speaking in Arabic, ordered everyone in the buildings to evacuate, saying they were about to attack. It was not clear if the troops were going to target the building housing Arafat's office.

The order came a few hours after Israeli forces, again using loudspeakers, urged area residents to open their windows and leave them open, prompting speculation that they could be planning to blow up the building. Windows left closed can shatter in a large explosion.

There was no confirmation of such a plan, however.

From inside his besieged compound, Arafat earlier Saturday called for Palestinians to halt attacks inside Israel, according to a statement from the official Palestinian news agency WAFA.

"I reiterate my call to the Palestinian people and all our parties to halt any violent attacks inside Israel because [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon exploits them as a cover to destroy the peace of the brave," Arafat said in the statement.

"We are ready for peace but not for capitulation, and we will not give up Jerusalem or a grain of our soil which are guaranteed to us by international law," he said.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat told CNN that Arafat's ability to enforce his call for a halt to attacks on Israelis was limited by Israeli forces, who were systematically dismantling his compound.

Israeli officials said the siege was not aimed at hurting Arafat -- but at isolating him -- and forcing the surrender of some 50 Palestinians on the Israel Defense Forces' list of terrorists.

Israeli military sources said Saturday that the 50 wanted Palestinians were among some 200 people still inside the compound. Nineteen Palestinians, all of them police officers, left the compound Friday and another 19 left Saturday, they said, but none was on the IDF's list of terrorists.

The Israel Defense Forces said Arafat, a few aides, and about 20 men wanted by Israel are confined to a few rooms in his office building -- one of the few structures left standing in the compound.

An Israeli woman is treated Thursday for injuries suffered in a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.
An Israeli woman is treated Thursday for injuries suffered in a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

The IDF said four senior Palestinian security and intelligence officials on its most wanted list are holed up in the compound -- an allegation Palestinians deny. The IDF has released details of the four who Israel accuses of financing and aiding terrorists. (See accompanying box)

An Israeli bulldozer Saturday was knocking down walls of a building in the compound, CNN's Sausan Ghosheh reported. The bulldozer was creating openings in the walls of buildings surrounding Arafat's office for Israeli soldiers to take up positions at a later time.

Most of the other compound buildings were demolished with bulldozers and explosives Thursday and Friday.

Arafat was reported to have been unharmed by the demolitions, but his aide Nabil abu Rudeineh told CNN from inside the office: "The situation is very grave and serious ... We urge the United States to interfere immediately to stop this catastrophe."

Erakat told CNN he was reassured by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that Arafat would not be harmed in the operation. Erakat offered to go to the Ramallah compound to negotiate a resolution, but Israeli officials denied his request.

Explosions and shooting were heard Saturday morning as the IDF maintained its positions.

Overnight, Israeli forces destroyed a walkway connecting the building housing Arafat's office to a building housing his security personnel.

Military sources said Israeli forces fired two tank shells overnight near the town hall building as a warning to get people to come out.

An Israeli tank passes by a damaged building in Arafat's compound.
An Israeli tank passes by a damaged building in Arafat's compound.

CNN's Ben Wedeman reported a tank shell landed in the floor above where the Palestinian leader was trying to sleep overnight. Arafat was shaken by the blast and covered in dust, but not injured, Wedeman said.

A leaflet faxed to news organizations Friday said Izzedine al Qassam, the military wing of Hamas, claimed responsibility for Thursday's suicide attack.

The U.S. State Department describes Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist organization, as a terrorist group. Izzedine al Qassam has admitted responsibility for previous terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians as well as attacks against the Israeli military.

In Washington, Bush administration officials said high-level talks between U.S. and Israeli officials began soon after the siege of Arafat's compound began. They said the United States was urging Israel to restore calm and refrain from steps focusing attention on Arafat.

"Israel has the right to defend itself and to deal with security, but Israel also has a need to bear in mind the consequences of action and Israel's stake in development of reforms in the Palestinian institutions," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Friday.



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