Barring aid to Jenin is 'a war crime'

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Horrific stories continued to emerge from Jenin yesterday as journalists, aid workers and human rights officials dodged Israeli troops still ringing the West Bank site to learn what happened in the military assault earlier this month.

Fathi Shalabi yesterday explained how he survived when the two men beside him, one of them his son Wadh, were shot dead by Israeli soldiers. Mr Shalabi, 63, lay on the ground in his son's blood, feigning death, for more than an hour.

Israel has promised to co-operate with a United Nations fact-finding team to be dispatched to Jenin. The US envoy to the Middle East, William Burns, visited the camp yesterday and said it was "obvious that what happened here has caused enormous suffering for thousands of Palestinian civilians". As he walked he paused to watch Palestinians shifting rubble with their bare hands in search of bodies and belongings. He said aid agencies should be given "full and complete access" to the entire area.

The Israeli army refused to allow the Red Cross and others into the camp for six days, well after most of the fighting had ended. Israel, which has launched a massive publicity drive to counter international anger over the Jenin atrocities, has seized on Arab claims that its army committed a massacre, which have not been proven.

But the aid agencies and UN officials here will press the case that even if there is ultimately no evidence of a massacre, severe atrocities certainly occurred. "The bottom line is that they kept out humanitarian aid for days and that in itself is a war crime," said a senior UN official. "There is no other way to look at it than as an attempt to hide another war crime. People died after lying day after day in the rubble because we were not allowed in."

So far 43 corpses have been retrieved, including six women, children and elderly men. Israel's armed forces say they did everything possible to protect civilians, although that claim has been met with scepticism internationally because of their repeated abuses, and killing, of Palestinian civilians during the 18-month conflict.

* Israeli tanks today began pulling out of the largest West Bank city, Nablus. Israeli forces remain in Bethlehem and around Yasser Arafat's battered headquarters in Ramallah. The army said its forces remain in several villages near Jenin.