Thursday, March 31, 2005

Abbas Orders Crackdown After Attack

ABC News - Mahmoud Abbas ordered a crackdown on Ramallah militants early Thursday after a group of gunmen fired at his compound in a sign of escalating tensions accompanying the new Palestinian leader's efforts to establish control over Palestinian towns.

Also Thursday, police in the West Bank town of Tulkarem demanded the surrender of seven armed Palestinians who burned down a Palestinian checkpoint overnight.

Abbas who was elected president in a Jan. 9 vote after the November death of Yasser Arafat has vowed to bring law and order to Palestinian areas and to reform his overlapping and corruption-plagued security forces.

The task is difficult. More than four years of fighting with Israel has badly weakened the Palestinian security forces and left militants, considered heroes by many Palestinians because of their attacks on Israelis, with great power in many Palestinian towns.

Israel has long demanded reform of the Palestinian security services as a condition for restarting peace talks, and re-establishing control is critical to the Palestinians' chances for keeping order in the Gaza Strip after Israel's planned withdrawal this summer.

The withdrawal has stirred opposition from Israeli settlers and their allies. On Thursday, a group of rabbis and hawkish leaders called on soldiers not to return to duty after the Passover holiday ends in about a month, arguing that their service would aid the pullout.

Late Wednesday, a group of 15 militants attacked Abbas' compound while he was inside before rampaging through the city, damaging several restaurants and forcing shops to close, witnesses and officials said. No injuries were reported.

In a meeting with security officials after the shooting spree, Abbas ordered the militants arrested, more troops deployed throughout the city and compensation paid to the businesses that were damaged, security officials said.

The gunmen who said they were members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, an armed group linked to Abbas' Fatah movement said they went on the rampage after Palestinian security officials forced six of them out of Abbas' headquarters, where they had sought refuge several years ago after Israel began hunting down fugitives. Arafat had allowed more than 20 fugitives to take refuge in his compound.

A Palestinian security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the security forces asked the six militants to either hand over their weapons or leave the compound after "they were involved in kidnappings, blackmailing, harming people, shooting them."

"They were warned many times to stop their behavior and actions," the official said.

Another security official warned that the security forces were "considering taking harsh steps against them."

"They have crossed the red line. They attacked the presidential headquarters. They are defying the Palestinian Authority and now we have to take harsh steps against them, otherwise they will control the city and spread chaos," the official said on condition of anonymity.

An Al Aqsa spokesman, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, denied the gunmen belonged to his group and called them "criminals who should be in jail."

Al Aqsa is a loose grouping of militant cells with no central leadership.

Tension also flared in Tulkarem, where a mob of angry Palestinians burned down a Palestinian roadblock after officers shot and wounded a man, security officials said.

Late Wednesday, the officers stopped three men, reportedly suspected car thieves, and after an argument, a police officer shot and lightly wounded one of the men.

A large group of men, some of them armed, then stormed the roadblock. The police fled, and the protesters burned several tents used to house the officers and the Palestinian flag that flew above.

On Thursday morning, police issued an ultimatum to seven of the protesters to turn themselves in or face repercussions.