Israel Vows To 'Finish The Job'
As Mideast Death Toll Soars


(AFP) - Israel blitzed the West Bank in what appeared to be the bloodiest day of violence since the Palestinian uprising began, vowing there would be no let up until it "finished the job."

Dozens of Palestinians and five Israeli soldiers were reported killed in fierce fighting as Israel shrugged off another call from US President George W. Bush to pull back its troops "without delay."

The Palestinians accused Bush of giving Prime Minister Ariel Sharon leeway to crush the remains of Yasser Arafat's self-rule government, saying refusal to hand Israel a deadline meant giving them a green light for killing instead.

A top official close to Sharon told AFP the army would withdraw "once we finish the job." The Palestinians called Saturday a "massacre."

US officials said Secretary of State Colin Powell, taking off on a foreign tour Sunday to address the Middle East crisis, would likely not get to the region until Friday after stops expected in Spain, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

"He has to stop playing with words," top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said about the absence of a deadline from Bush. "Sharon is using the time between now and the arrival of Powell to destroy everything."

Bush held a joint press conference in Texas with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, where he announced the two agreed Israel must pull out "without delay" and said "all options are on the table" for a military strike on Iraq as part of the US-led anti-terror campaign.

US allies have warned attacks on strongman Saddam Hussein's Iraq could pour fuel on anti-American rage already burning over Washington's support for Israel, as well as its display of muscle in Afghanistan after September 11.

"It has always been our policy that Iraq would be a better place without Saddam Hussein," said Blair, who faces domestic pressure to stay out of Iraq. "How we approach this -- this is a matter for discussion."

Bush said the Arab world must "step up and lead" to help get a Middle East ceasefire, again hinting that Arafat was near the end of his time as a leader that Washington would recognise.

"Arafat has never earned my trust," said Bush. "He had opportunity after opportunity to be a leader, and he hasn't led and I'm disappointed."

Arab nations made Israel a historic peace offer the day before the military campaign began, volunteering relations with the Jewish state if it withdrew from occupied land. Sharon refused.

New cross-border attacks on Israeli positions from south Lebanon underscored fears of a second front in the campaign. Israel struck back quickly with air raids. The radical Hamas and other militant groups vowed to step up anti-Israeli attacks.

Fierce fighting erupted as Palestinian militants and security forces battled Israeli troops pushing deeper into the West Bank for a ninth day to solidify their grip in what Israel says is a bid to stop terror attacks.

The heaviest battles were reported from Nablus and Jenin, and in particular the Jenin refugee camp known as a stronghold for Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen.

Palestinian information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said there were 30 reported dead in one area, and that the death toll could be as high as 100 in the refugee camp alone. "Today is a day of massacres in Jenin," he said.

The Palestinians said dozens of wounded lay bloodied in the streets, unable to get help because the Israelis had blocked ambulances, and asked world leaders to intervene. "Every hour counts," Erakat said.

The intense combat showed Israel had not yet tamed Palestinian resistance in the two key towns of the northern West Bank, despite a barrage of tank and helicopter fire that residents said left houses in ruins.

Israeli tanks also rocked Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, where he has been penned in by the Israeli army since the offensive began on March 29. Three bodyguards were wounded and one of them arrested but Arafat was unhurt, Palestinian sources said.

There was no way to independently verify the soaring death toll, which had reached more than 50 Palestinians, including five children, and five Israeli soldiers by late evening. Combat areas are blocked off by Israel.

The numbers included violence in the Gaza Strip, which along with the West Bank towns of Jericho and divided Hebron has so far escaped the massive Israeli incursion.

Residents said troops and tanks also rolled into more Palestinian areas, Qabatiya in the north and Yatta to the south, as they tried to consolidate their grip on land given to the Palestinians under peace deals in the 1990s.

"We are currently witnessing a massacre similar to that of Sabra and Shatila," Abed Rabbo said, evoking one of the blackest days in Arab memory, and one indelibly linked to Sharon.

Between 800 and 2,000 Palestinians were slain in the two refugee camps in Lebanon during Israel's catastrophic 1982 invasion, when Sharon was Israel's defence minister.

The Arab League, gathered in Cairo to address the crisis, said it would push for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council and declared its support for the armed uprising as "legitimate resistance" to occupation.

The Israeli army says it has seized large quantities of bombs and other weapons in its push through the West Bank, launched two days after a suicide bomber killed 26 people on the Jewish Passover holiday.

Israel says it has arrested around 1,500 Palestinians and announced Friday it was re-opening a detention camp in the Negev desert used in the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada.

An armed standoff between Israeli troops and around 200 Palestinian gunmen bunkered inside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, one of the holiest sites in Christendom, reached its fifth day Saturday.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a dove who has frequently clashed with Sharon over how to handle the conflict, told Israeli radio that the assault should be ended "quickly" and political negotiations resumed. ___
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