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Arafat Remains Under Siege in West Bank - 2002-09-22

Violent demonstrations erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip Sunday as Israel laid siege to, and demolished most of, the headquarters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

While Israeli forces halted demolition late Sunday, they continued pressure on the Palestinian leader to turn over wanted Palestinians. At least five Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops.

The violent anti-Israel demonstrations that began Saturday in towns and villages across the West Bank and Gaza Strip continued Sunday.

The protesters are angry that Mr. Arafat has been placed under siege, for the third time this year, at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Israel has destroyed all but his offices in the once sprawling complex.

Mr. Arafat remains defiant, and is refusing to give up 20 wanted Palestinians holed up with him in the last remaining building.

Palestinians accuse Israel of using excessive force against demonstrators. Israel says the demonstrators acted in violation of curfews, and all those shot dead were carrying weapons and threatening soldiers.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Sofer says the siege will continue, until the wanted men surrender, or agree to go into exile. "We have no interest whatsoever in harming any of the people in there," he said, adding that "those who are involved in terrorism, we would like to take in for questioning. Those that would like to leave and to go abroad, they are certainly free to do so."

Mr. Sofer says he hopes, once the drama is over, Israel and the Palestinians can return to what he called the "serious business of peacemaking."

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo says that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is not interested in negotiating a peaceful settlement of the conflict, but rather in wielding more power over the Palestinians.

"The plan of Sharon is the destruction of the Palestinian leadership, the replacement of this leadership by a different one that will accept his schemes for establishing an administrative rule, with limited [Palestinian authorities], and annexing most of the Palestinian territories," said Mr. Abed Rabbo.

The military offensive against Mr. Arafat's headquarters began after a Tel Aviv suicide bombing on Thursday that killed six people.

Some Israeli officials have hinted that the siege is aimed at driving Mr. Arafat out of the West Bank.

At the same time, a spokesman for Mr. Sharon says that Mr. Arafat will not be harmed physically.