- RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters)
- Israeli tanks and troops completed their pullout from the compound housing
Yasser Arafat's headquarters on Thursday, ending their one-month siege
of the defiant Palestinian leader.
- A Reuters correspondent at the scene in the West Bank
city of Ramallah said at least a dozen Israeli tanks and armored troop
carriers had left the area of the compound, known as the Muqata, under
a U.S.-brokered deal to end the standoff.
- The army confirmed it had completed its withdrawal from
the entire city of Ramallah though troops were expected to circle the main
Palestinian financial and cultural hub.
- Shortly after the Israeli withdrawal, journalists were
allowed into the walled compound where dozens of Palestinian security personnel
brandishing assault rifles thronged, clapping and cheering at the Israeli
- Some flashed V-signs for victory, others hugged their
- Arafat however, was in an angry mood.
- "It is not important what happened to me here. What
is important is what is happening in the Church of the Nativity. This is
a crime," Arafat, trembling with fury, told reporters in his offices
in his first remarks after the siege was lifted.
- Clad in his traditional black-and-white checked keffiyeh,
he called the Israelis Nazis and terrorists then stormed out of the conference
- He was referring to the Israeli siege of Palestinians
holed up in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. Israeli troops battled
Palestinian gunmen at the church on Wednesday and a blaze broke out in
two rooms inside the compound of the holy site, revered by Christians as
- Israeli soldiers have surrounded the church for more
than a month, demanding that gunmen inside surrender. They fled into the
church during the military offensive in the West Bank that Israel said
was to root out Palestinian militants involved in suicide bombings and
to isolate Arafat.
- PALESTINIANS CLEAR ROADBLOCKS LEADING TO COMPOUND
- Witnesses in Ramallah said Palestinian bulldozers began
clearing dirt and rubble roadblocks set up by the Israeli army on the streets
leading to Arafat's compound.
- "We're clearing (roadblocks) one by one, we're going
from checkpoint to checkpoint until the withdrawal is completed,"
Palestinian Minister of Public Works Azzam al-Ahmed said.
- Dozens of bodyguards and Palestinian policemen gathered
in Ramallah's main square, preparing to enter the Muqata with Palestinian
flags draped on their cars.
- The Israeli withdrawal began shortly after the Palestinian
Authority transferred six men wanted by Israel from Arafat's office to
the custody of U.S. and British officials who will oversee their detention
in the West Bank town of Jericho.
- Israel originally demanded their extradition for trial
in the Jewish state but backed down under U.S. pressure to end the most
sensitive Israeli-Palestinian standoff in a 19-month-old Palestinian uprising
- "This is the beginning of a new road. We hope to
reach peace for the Palestinian people," said Mohammed Dahlan, a Palestinian
security chief, inside the compound.
- The withdrawal ended a tense standoff during which Israeli
troops searched other buildings in the compound, confiscating Palestinian
documents and leaving destruction in their wake.
- Arafat's offices, where he was surrounded by close aides
and foreign peace activists, showed evidence of the weeks of siege. Plumbing
leaked and garbage was piled up inside.
- "Arafat was in real danger -- the excuse was that
they wanted those who were detained. But I think this is the beginning
of a great Palestinian success to end the siege of all Palestinian people
and start the peace process," Dahlan said.
- He could not say when Arafat would leave the compound
or where he might go. Israel has confined Arafat to Ramallah since December,
after a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings.