Arafat Still Angry As Israelis Pull
Out, Ending Month-Long Siege

By Christine Hauser

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 soldiers' departure.
Some flashed V-signs for victory, others hugged their comrades.
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 room.
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 Jesus's birthplace.
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.
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 against occupation.
"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.

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