Israeli troops blow up building to get to hiding militants

AP , NABLUS, WEST BANK

Sat, Sep 06, 2003 - Page 6

Israeli troops exchanged fire with Palestinian militants yesterday, killing one and arresting three, before blowing up the seven-story apartment building in which the wanted men were hiding, witnesses said.

Several loud blasts were heard during the two-hour firefight in Nablus, the West Bank's largest city. The military said the wanted men threw grenades.

Israeli soldiers blew up the badly damaged building, which had been evacuated, bringing down the tall structure that housed 28 apartments. The army was checking whether the dead Palestinian is Mohammed Hanbali, leader of the military wing of the violent Islamic Hamas group in the city. The army brought Hanbali's father to see the body, but he couldn't make an identification because the dead man was badly disfigured.

The raid came a day after Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, weakened by a power struggle with Yasser Arafat, told parliament it must either back him or strip him of his post. Legislators will meet twice in coming days to decide whether to hold a confidence vote that could topple the unpopular Abbas and deliver a major blow to an already troubled US-backed peace plan.

In the Nablus raid, troops surrounded the apartment building and ordered all residents to leave, said Ziyad Atebeh, who lives nearby. Soldiers came under fire and gunmen also threw hand grenades, the army said.

Witnesses said soldiers removed the body of a Palestinian man from the building. Three Palestinians were arrested after the gun battle, residents said. Soldiers laid explosive charges and blew up the building, according to witnesses. The army had no immediate comment.

Israel has intensified its hunt for militants since a mid-August Hamas suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus. A 27-year-old Israeli man wounded in that attack died yesterday, bringing the total killed to 22 people. Israel has said it will not let up until Palestinian security forces start dismantling Hamas, Islamic Jihad and armed groups with ties to Arafat's Fatah movement.

In his speech to parliament on Thursday, Abbas reiterated that he would not use force in dealing with militants. Abbas told legislators he must be given full power to carry out reforms required by the "road map" peace plan.

Parliament scheduled a closed-door session today and another one for midweek to meet with Abbas and discuss his demands, after which legislators were to decide whether to hold a confidence vote.