Israel sits tight in Nablus militant hunt

Imad Saada,NABLUS, West Bank, AFP

Israeli troops combed Nablus for militants Saturday, a day after soldiers poured into the northern West Bank city that Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer has dubbed a “terrorist capital.”

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he still wanted to meet next week in Washington with a Palestinian delegation, despite Washington’s anger over Wednesday’s bombing at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University that left five Americans and two Israelis dead.

“We have to continue to find a way forward. This means that you have to talk to people,” Powell said in Manila during a stop on his eight-nation Asian tour.

Powell said he would decide exactly when he will see the delegation only after arriving home on Sunday from his trip, but chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat has said the meeting is likely to take place on Thursday.

In Nablus, tanks flanked the rim of the city’s old quarter, known as the Casbah, while soldiers conducted house-to-house searches for Palestinian militants, witnesses said, adding that snipers poised with guns stood on rooftops.

Soldiers knocked out doors to shops closed under curfew as the army hunted for militants trying to evade the dragnet, witnesses said.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat condemned the Israeli offensive, calling it a crime and urged the United Nations to intervene.

“What happened in Nablus is a crime that we can not stay silent about,” Arafat said, quoted by the official WAFA news agency.

Around 120 tanks, bulldozers and troop carriers swooped on the city Friday after back-to-back bomb attacks in Jerusalem this past week, including the blast at the Hebrew University that raised the ire of the international community.

About 50 people have been detained since Israeli troops stormed in and 10 homes have had walls bulldozed by the army as it cleared pathways into the maze of the Casbah, witnesses said.

The army said Saturday it had destroyed a third bomb-making factory since retaking the town and detained two more Palestinians, although it would not disclose the exact number rounded up.

Israel launched its offensive on the battered city as it looked to punish Palestinians for the Jerusalem bombings, the first there in six weeks and the worst Palestinian strike since Israel bombed a Gaza City neighborhood on July 22.

That air raid killed the military commander of the Islamic group Hamas and 14 others, including nine children, and provoked cries of revenge from militant groups like Hamas which claimed the Hebrew University blast.