Heavy fighting after Israeli tanks invade Nablus

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The Independent Online

More than 100 Israeli tanks patrolled the deserted streets of Nablus, the West Bank's largest city, today while helicopter–backed troops fought intense battles with hundreds of Palestinian gunmen barricaded in refugee camps.

More than 100 Israeli tanks patrolled the deserted streets of Nablus, the West Bank's largest city, today while helicopter–backed troops fought intense battles with hundreds of Palestinian gunmen barricaded in refugee camps.

In Bethlehem, a standoff between Israeli forces and gunmen holed up in the Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity's holiest shrines, entered a third day. A priest trapped in the ancient basilica said gunmen ignored a renewed call by Israel to surrender, made before dawn over loudspeakers.

World concern for the explosive situation was growing. A senior European diplomat said US mediation efforts had failed, and that Washington should step aside as primary peacemaker.

Israel, meanwhile, blocked a high–level European mediation attempt, saying European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, who were arriving in the region today, would not be permitted to meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has been isolated by Israel for a week.

Israeli forces have taken over six major West Bank towns and cities – Ramallah, Qalqiliya, Jenin, Tulkarem, Bethlehem, Nablus – and have arrested more than 1,100 Palestinians. The towns of Jericho and Hebron remained the last islands of Palestinian control.

The invasion of Nablus began late last night, with dozens of tanks rolling into the city of 180,000. Gunmen took refuge in Nablus's old city, and in four nearbyrefugee camps, where alleys are too narrow to allow tanks to enter.

A Palestinian man was killed by Israeli fire when he opened a window in his apartment in Nablus, Palestinian security officials said. Amar Yassin, a resident of downtown Nablus, said more than 80 armoured vehicles were deployed in and around the main square and soldiers took over high–rise buildings.

The heaviest fighting raged in the Jenin refugee camp, a militant stronghold where hundreds of gunmen are holed up. Israeli commandos moved house–to–house, under fire cover from helicopters and tanks.

At a nearby army command centre, officers had an aerial photo of the camp pinned on the inside of a canvas tent. By this morning, about 30 percent of the homes had been marked as having been searched or taken over by troops.

Over radios, soldiers in the camp called for helicopter fire on a particular house. The commander of the operation, Brigadier General Eyal Shlein, said :"When I get to every single spot in the refugee camp ... and we've killed a few, that's how I will know (it was a success)," Shlein said. "We are not leaving any escape routes."

Gunmen in the camp said they believed this was their last stand, judging by the tough army sweeps through other West Bank towns.

Armed men had prepared large numbers of homemade bombs for the Israeli raid of Jenin, the seventh in 18 months of fighting. Ali Safouri, a militia leader, said he and his men were trying to make every bullet count. "We use it for sniping only, we are not shooting in all directions," Safouri said in a phone interview.



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