Israelis attack Arafat's headquarters

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Israeli helicopters attacked Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's residential compound today after two captured Israeli soldiers were lynched by a mob.

Israeli helicopters attacked Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's residential compound today after two captured Israeli soldiers were lynched by a mob.

The gunships hovered close to their target before firing rockets.

They returned hours later, at about 5.15pm, and attacked again.

And this evening, Israeli Prime Minister Ehub Barak said his forces were planning strikes against Palestinian police forces.

He said the murders of the soldiers proved the Palestinian police could not keep order.

The soldiers - among four captured after taking a wrong turn while driving - were murdered after taking refuge in a Palestinian police station in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

A crowd of demontrators gathered outside, before a number entered by climbing to a second floor window.

They killed at least two Israelis and flung their bodies to the ground, where they were brutally stamped on.

Israel's deputy defence minister, Ephraim Sneh, said Israel had no choice but to retaliate, adding that "it's never too late" to resume talks at some stage.

World leaders have again called for an end to 15 days of hostilities that have left more than 90 people dead.

But hopes of a quick peace settlement seemed distant, with both sides blaming the other for the continued fighting.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak responded quickly to the soldiers' killings, tightly sealing Palestinian towns, amassing troops near Ramallah and unleashing helicopter gunships.

The first targets hit by the rockets were the police station and the Palestinian TV headquarters in Ramallah. Black columns of smoke rose from the city, and Palestinian reports said at least 12 people were injured.

Arafat's headquarters in Gaza City and buildings near it were hurriedly evacuated shortly before the attack. A guard house next to Arafat's residence was hit, and smoke was rising above the compound, near the Mediterranean seafront. Residents were running out of the buildings in the area amid the chaos, and ambulances rushed to the scene.

The Israeli army said it did not target Arafat's home itself.

The attack came shortly after Arafat met with CIA chief George Tenet at an undisclosed location in Gaza City.

The killing of the soldiers and Israel's strong response left little hope that Israel and the Palestinians could negotiate a truce and bring an end to two weeks of bloodshed that have left at least 94 people dead, the vast majority Palestinians.

Barak said the killing of the soldiers was "very grave," and convened a Cabinet meeting Thursday afternoon.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan cut short a Lebanon visit to deal with the crisis between Israel and the Palestinians. "I appeal to all - leaders and citizens alike - to stop and think about what they are doing today and what kind of tomorrow they want for their children," Annan said in a statement. "I urge you to opt for restraint."

Earlier this week, Annan had tried to broker a truce, with little success.

In Ramallah, the Palestinian police station was reduced to rubble after being hammered by the rockets, and flames poured out of a second building in Ramallah. An angry mob gathered outside the station, shouting "God is great," and raising a Palestinian flag on a wall that was partially destroyed.

"This is a crime. Let the world see what Israel does to us," said Adeed Zeidan, a Palestinian ambulence driver.

As part of its wide-ranging response, Israel clamped an internal closure on the West Bank, meaning Palestinians could not leave their communities. The army said it was amassing large forces near Ramallah, and tanks were stationed outside the city.

The crisis erupted this morning when the Israeli soldiers inadvertently made a wrong turn and ended up near the center of Ramallah, a scene of daily battles between Israeli troops and Palestinian rioters.

The soldiers were detained by Palestinian police and immediately rushed to a nearby police station. Rumors quickly spread that the Israelis belonged to an undercover army unit that tracks Palestinian fugitives, a claim the army has denied. More than 1,000 Palestinians surged toward the police station, some chanting "Death to the death squads," witnesses said.

Palestinian forces tried to keep the mob at bay, but about 10 men broke through a second-floor window where the Israelis were held. TV footage showed the attackers emerging from the station with blood-covered hands.

The bodies of two Israeli soldiers were thrown down from the second floor and thrashed with iron bars. From the window, young Palestinians shook their fists and flashed gleeful "V for victory" signs.

The mob on the street surrounded one corpse and shouted angrily, witnesses said. Both Israeli bodies were soaked in blood.

There were conflicting reports about whether one, or perhaps two additional soldiers were seized by Palestinians.

Thirteen Palestinian policemen were injured while attempting to keep the mob away from the soldiers in the jail, the Palestinian Information Ministry said.

Throughout the Palestinians areas, security forces braced for further Israeli retaliation.

"I don't think anyone expects us to be restrained any longer," Israel's Communications Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said on Army radio.

A resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks on a comprehensive peace settlement appeared extremely dim.

"There is no peace process today. The peace process is dead," said Ben-Eliezer. Lashing out at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, he added, "Arafat's clear desire is for war, that is what he wants."