Middle East on the edge of war

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Middle East on the edge of war

By Phil Reeves in Jerusalem and David Usborne in New York

13 October 2000

The Middle East was plunged into a deepening crisis yesterday as some of the most shocking violence for 30 years reverberated across the region, reducing the Oslo peace process to ashes and threatening to explode into war.

Ehud Barak, Israel's Prime Minister, was last night moving to form a national emergency government after a day in which Israeli helicopters fired rockets into two Palestinian cities  one landing within yards of Yasser Arafat's compound in Gaza while the Palestinian leader was inside  after two Israeli soldiers were lynched by a mob in Ramallah.

Mr Barak said he hoped to form a government within days, and said he wanted it to include Ariel Sharon, head of the right-wing Likud party, whose visit to Haram al-Sharif  or Temple Mount  ignited the firestorm that has swept the West Bank, Gaza and Israel in the past two weeks.

Such a government ends any chance of new negotiations on peace, as the Arab world is united in its hatred of Mr Sharon, though Egypt offered to hold a four-way summit with America in Cairo if Israel halted its attacks.

Fighting continued last night with Israeli helicopters attacking the main compound of the Palestinian security forces in Nablus; officers fled into the street before the shooting began. A firefight erupted in the West Bank town of Hebron and helicopters attacked gunmen in the town of Salfit, near Nablus and fire rockets into the Palestinian police academy in Jericho, apparently in retaliation for the burning of an ancient synagogue there.

Mr Barak's move to form a new government followed a day in which the Middle East was plunged into its worst crisis since the 1991 Gulf War, and which included an attack on an American target, when anexplosives-laden boat detonated alongside a US destroyer in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing five sailors and injuring 36.

By mid-afternoon yesterday, as Mr Barak avenged the soldiers' death in an effort to assuage public fury, helicopters were rocketing targets in Ramallah and Gaza City, while tanks were deployed on the edge of Palestinian zones.

It was the most perilous day to grip the region since the start of the Palestinian uprising two weeks ago and began when the Palestinian mob killed the Israeli soldiers after smashing their way into a police station where they were being held. One body was thrown into the street and beaten with iron bars; the second was dangled from a rope.

Why the soldiers were in Ramallah was not clear. Israel said they were reservists who took a wrong turn; the Palestinians said they were spies.

The incident, captured by television cameras, provoked a swift, devastating response. There were waves of helicopter gunship attacks in Gaza and Ramallah but Mr Arafat was unharmed, aides said. He was cheered as he visited the injured and toured sites hit by rockets. "Our people don't care, and don't hesitate to continue their march to Jerusalem, their capital of the independent Palestinian state," he said.

Palestinian spokesmen accused Israel of unleashing an all-out war against the Palestinian people and appealed for international intervention. But an Israeli army statement described the attacks as merely a "token signal" in response to the soldiers' murder. Israel said it was a limited action, and that it had warned the Palestinians three hours in advance.

Diplomats could scarcely believe that a day that had begun with a flurry of diplomatic activity by the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, had so swiftly descended into chaos. But the deep anger felt by both Israeli and Palestinian politicians was unmistakable. "This is a declaration of war - a crazy war ... There is no peace process today," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian official.

Israel's Communications Minister, Binyamin BenEliezer, said: "The peace process is dead. He added: "Arafat's clear desire is for war, that is what he wants."

In the United States, there was horror at the attack on the Cole in Aden. Officials said last night that in addition to the five fatalities, 36 men had been injured and 12 more were missing. Witnesses said an inflatable craft, which had apparently been helping the Cole to berth in the port for a refuelling, drew up alongside the ship and exploded at 12.15pm. Two men were seen getting to their feet and standing to attention at the moment of detonation. The explosion left a gaping hole, 40ft by 20ft, at the ship's waterline. Efforts were under way to stop it sinking.

Few doubted the attack had been a suicide mission and that it was linked to the violence between Israel and the Palestinians. President Bill Clinton ordered US ships in the region to pull out of port. The US also sent medical help to Yemen as well as anti-terrorist agents.

"If, as it now appears, it was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act," Mr Clinton said. "We will find who was responsible and hold them accountable." He added: "If their purpose was to deter us from pursuing our mission of peace in the Middle East, they will fail utterly." The President also reacted strongly to the events in Ramallah. "While I understand the anguish Palestinians feel over the losses they have suffered, there can be no possible justification for mob violence," he said. "I call on both sides to undertake a ceasefire immediately."

In New York the Dow Jones index lost 4 per cent as oil prices hit a 10-year high.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 12, 2000

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