Militants missing as blasts level siege HQ

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The Independent Online

Israel's armed forces were yesterday searching for bodies in the West Bank city of Hebron, in the rubble of a Palestinian municipal and security headquarters which they had earlier blown up to end a four-day siege.

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Israel's armed forces were yesterday searching for bodies in the West Bank city of Hebron, in the rubble of a Palestinian municipal and security headquarters which they had earlier blown up to end a four-day siege.

Uncertainty surrounded the fate of 15 armed Palestinians who were believed to be barricaded inside the hilltop compound. Israeli army sappers levelled the four-storey structure with two thunderous explosions, turning it into a heap of ruins.

Yesterday afternoon – more than 12 hours after the huge detonations shook the city of 120,000 – a spokeswoman for the Israeli army said that troops were conducting searches of the wreckage but had not yet found any bodies.

There was fury from the Palestinians. "This destruction, without taking into consideration that there might be injured people inside that compound ... shows the brutality of the [Israeli] occupation," said the information minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo.

Israeli reports on what happened to the men, who were wanted by Israeli security forces, were contradictory. Israeli Army Radio said earlier that officers believed the occupants of the headquarters were dead. But Israel Radio said it was possible they had escaped through tunnels.

The blasts sent flames and sparks spraying into the sky. "It was like a strong earthquake. I was thrown on the floor. Windows broke. The children cried," said Raid Hamedi, 23, a jewellery maker, as he surveyed the damage from his home about 200 yards from the scene.

More than 100 Palestinians came out of the building during the siege, many of them police officers. The army said it arrested about 20 and let the rest go. But Israel insisted that about 15 wanted Palestinians militants were still inside on Friday. The army "detonated in a controlled manner a part of the building where wanted Palestinians were taking refuge and refused to turn themselves in", the Israeli military said in a statement released before the second blast.

Those inside the compound last fired on Israeli army positions early on Friday, but then the shooting stopped, the Israeli army said. Later the same day a former Palestinian cabinet minister, Talal Sedr, went inside the compound to urge the armed Palestinians inside to give themselves up.

He found no one, although he was unable to search the whole of the badly damaged building. "The last time I went inside no one gave me a response. Maybe Israelis killed the Palestinians within the first few days of the standoff," he said.

The attack on the building, which Israeli forces pounded with helicopter and tank missiles and machine guns during the siege, reflects Israel's anxiety not to allow another prolonged stand-off to develop after the five-week siege of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. It came at a time when Israel has largely avoided international censure, despite sending its army to re-occupy seven of the eight main Palestinian-run towns – killing six children in a week – and placing hundreds of thousands of people under curfew in the name of stopping suicide bombings.

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