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Arafat says he is under 'complete siege'

aerial image
This undated aerial photo of Arafat's compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah has Arafat's office building encircled in red.  

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat remained trapped in his office early Saturday where he told CNN by phone that he was under "complete siege."

"They have destroyed completely seven of our buildings. Completely around my office and firing (at) my office with all their armaments," Arafat said as Israeli tanks were parked outside his office.

CNN correspondent Michael Holmes reported hearing fierce exchanges of fire overnight in Ramallah, with an occasional tank shell exploding.

Israeli troops took over most of Arafat's Ramallah compound on Friday, fighting room-to-room and arresting as many as 70 people, Israel Defense Forces said.

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Palestinians battled the Israelis with automatic weapons, at times in the same rooms. At least five Palestinians and one Israeli officer were killed.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said it was the beginning of an operation against Palestinian militants that is to last weeks.

Since the beginning of the Passover holiday on Wednesday night, Palestinian groups have carried out three terror attacks against Israelis that resulted in 28 Israeli deaths and more than 100 injuries.

When Arafat was asked if he would rein in the violence as requested by the United States, Arafat angrily said the Palestinians were currently suffering from "the terrorist activities of the Israeli occupation."

He also scoffed at the U.S. announcement that the Israelis had promised he would not be harmed. Arafat said the focus should be on "the problem of our people, of our liberty, of our independent Palestinian state."

The Palestinians disputed the number of arrests, but said one Arafat aide had been arrested at a home outside the compound.

Several Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers have been deployed to the compound. Troops could be seen entering through at least seven holes punched in the walls. The compound's gates also had been destroyed and heavy gunfire could be heard from inside the facility, which covers several acres.

Arafat was holed up in an office on the second floor of the building with two aides; two tanks were stationed at the bottom of the stairs, one of the aides said. Electricity and phone lines had been cut, but Palestinians have access to cellular phones, said Arafat aide Yasser Abbed Rabbo.(More details from Ramallah)

Also on Friday, Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades -- the military wing of Arafat's Fatah movement -- claimed responsibility for a blast that killed at least two Israelis in Jerusalem.

Israeli troops enter Arafat's Ramallah headquarters on Friday after tanks broke through the wall.  

Latest developments:

  • An office building in the heart of Ramallah, less than a mile from Arafat's compound, was the scene of an intense gunbattle Saturday morning between Israeli troops and Palestinian fighters, who were holed up inside.
  • A column of 13 tanks and armored vehicles rolled into the Palestinian town of Beit Jala in the West Bank, Palestinian sources said late Friday. There were no firefights in the area, the sources said. Beit Jala is near the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo just south of Jerusalem. The Israeli army had no immediate comment.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell condemned the Passover violence against Israelis; called on Arafat to take action against those responsible; said the United States is "gravely concerned" by Israeli actions in Ramallah; said the United States understands the need for Israel to protect itself; said that U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni would remain in the region to work toward a cease-fire and that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had assured him Arafat would not be hurt. (Transcript)
  • Arafat's spokesman said "we have nothing to do" with Friday's suicide attack, which killed at least two Israelis, according to Israeli police.
  • Friday's suicide bomber was identified by Al Aqsa as an 18-year-old woman from the Deheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem. Police said at least 17 people were wounded in the terror attack at a grocery store in the neighborhood of Kiryat Yovel.
  • Following a late-night Cabinet meeting, Sharon announced an extended military operation against Palestinian terrorism "everywhere it exists." "Arafat has established a coalition of terrorism against Israel," Sharon said after an all-night Cabinet meeting. "He is an enemy and at this stage he will be isolated."
  • Gun battles erupted as the Israelis moved in. In addition, Israeli police clashed with Palestinian demonstrators in the Old City of Jerusalem near the area of the Al Aqsa Mosque, one of the most sacred sites in Islam.
  • Before Israeli soldiers entered the Ramallah compound, Arafat told Al-Jazeera television by telephone that he hoped the Israeli operation will make him a martyr. "They either want to kill me, or capture me, or expel me," he said, speaking from his Ramallah headquarters. "I hope I will be a martyr in the Holy Land. I have chosen this path and if I fall, one day a Palestinian child will raise the Palestinian flag above our mosques and churches." (Full story)
  • On Wednesday, a Palestinian suicide bombing during a Passover Seder at a Netanya hotel killed 22 people and the bomber. Thursday, four settlers in a Jewish settlement near Nablus were killed. The militant wing of Hamas claimed responsibility for both attacks. Hamas is a Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist group that has been labeled by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization.
  • Arafat held a news conference in Ramallah on Thursday, saying Palestinians were ready to implement a U.S. cease-fire plan "without any conditions." But Israeli officials were skeptical.
  • Before Friday's move into Ramallah, the Israeli army had said it was calling up 20,000 reserve forces in response to recent Palestinian terrorist attacks.
  • The raid marked Israel's response to a series of Palestinian terror attacks that occurred even as international efforts to lay the groundwork for a cease-fire intensified.

    U.S. envoy Zinni has spent the past two weeks in the region pushing for the implementation of a plan to break the cycle of attack and reprisal, and, on Thursday, the Arab League adopted a Saudi-proposed blueprint for peace. Within 24 hours, the suicide bomb went off at the market in Jerusalem.

    It also represented yet another downward lurch in Israeli-Palestinian relations, which have steadily deteriorated since the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi last October.

    As terror attacks continued unabated despite repeated calls by Arafat for an end to the violence, the Sharon government moved from regarding the Palestinian Authority leader as a potential partner for peace to calling him "irrelevant" and refusing to deal with him. The nadir came Friday, when Sharon described Arafat as an enemy who "established a coalition of terror against Israel" and would therefore be "isolated."




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