Foreign journalists flee as soldiers use stun grenades to block access

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Israeli soldiers fired stun grenades into a crowd of foreign television journalists who were trying to report on the meeting between the American envoy Anthony Zinni and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, in Ramallah yesterday.

The incident was sharply condemned by press freedom campaigners and journalists' protection groups.

The Arafat/Zinni meeting was the first crack in the wall of militarily enforced "isolation" that the Palestinian leader has been subjected to by Israel for a week.

But as the Israelis acted aggressively to prevent any media presence around the compound where Mr Arafat is besieged, the two dozen reporters trying to observe Mr Zinni's arrival found themselves under attack with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets almost as soon as they approached the compound entrance.

Barbara Plett, the BBC's correspondent in Ramallah, was in a convoy of about six armoured vehicles."There were about five people in each. All of us were journalists – broadcast journalists– and the cars were marked clearly with 'TV' in big letters.

"We stopped at the gates to the compound, what used to be gates before the Israelis demolished them – when a tank came and two military Land- Rovers drove up the street in front of us.

"Somebody said they asked us to leave but I didn't hear that, it was quite a long convoy. Suddenly, they were throwing stun grenades at us. I could see them throwing the grenades from the jeeps for sure – others said they saw them being thrown from the tank. I thought it was probably tear gas. I couldn't believe they would open fire on us, we were five cars of journalists, that would have been insane. But I was startled and you just start to run".

CNN's Michael Holmes said he counted six stun grenades that were thrown into the crowd of journalists.

One went off with a loud bang and a blinding flash under Mr Holmes' foot as he ran from the scene. Mr Holmes said that, as the journalists drove off, the soldiers fired rubber-coated bullets on them. Two bullets struck the back of the vehicle being driven by the CNN crew, damaging a rear window, he said. Some of the journalists decided to flee on foot.

Ms Plett said: "Zinni's arrival was a story we were going to cover. We hadn't been going near the compound for a few days but we thought they might tolerate us filming in light of the decision to allow that meeting to go ahead. I was not shocked at the heavy-handed approach of the Israeli army. They have a sniper outside our hotel, for Heaven's sake. But a lot of people were wound up by it even if they did not think it was a life-threatening situation. The photographers kept clicking and the cameras kept rolling."

The International Federation of Journalists appealed to Israel last night, asking it to stop harassing the media. Aidan White, the IFJ general secretary, said: "It is a miracle that someone was not seriously hurt but tragedy is inevitable unless Israel tells its troops to stop firing on reporters. This incident is a horrifying example of how journalists are being victimised in this conflict."

Four journalists have been killed and there have been more than 50 incidents of violence against the media in the 18 months of the intifada.