The fearsome crocodiles hanging around the banks of their pool or hiding among the reeds at the crocodile farm in the Jordan Valley took little interest in the officers from the Civil Administration who had come down the dusty road to see them.

But the officers had a mission. Amid the hype about the expected declaration of a Palestinian state at the United Nations, they were called in to deal with the escape into the night of dozens of the reptiles late last week.

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Particularly concerned about the escape was Bassem, the animals' devoted caretaker. The debilitating Jordan Valley heat in which he was working on a burst sewage pipe made him forget for a moment to close a gate. The smaller crocs took advantage of the lapse and slipped out to freedom.

Another fence was waiting for them. "They go along the banks until they find a weaker point and manage to push through and keep going," said Haggai Yehuda, head of the municipal department of the Jordan Valley Regional Council. "We all make mistakes," he added.

Unfortunately Bassem, instead of enjoying the Id al-Fitr holiday with his family, had to spend it hunting crocs. Some of the reptiles made it two kilometers away, to the swimming pool at Moshav Yafit to the north.

Employees from the Mekorot water company were the first to notice the escapees when they ran one over early Thursday morning on their way to work.

The head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, Danny Elhayani, tried to maintain calm. "These are small crocodiles, about a a meter to a meter and a half long," he said. "But we didn't take it lightly, and we went out to look for them. At the moment there are no more reports of crocodiles at large in the area."

According to Amir Aloni, deputy director of the Judea and Samaria region of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, about 20 people took part in the search, including authority personnel, soldiers and local residents. "We expanded the circles of our search between Thursday evening and Friday, and found 65 crocodiles," said Aloni. "Half had managed to escape the farm.

The search was mounted mainly at night, using spotlights to detect two glints in the darkness, the animal's eyes. Then, while the croc was frozen in the glare, searchers went around it from the back and lassoed it around the neck.

If not for last week's great escape, it seems the world would have forgotten Bassem and his charges. A giant sculpture of an open-jawed reptile looks out over fallen huts and enclosures abandoned over the years. These remnants recall better days, some 30 years ago, when nearby Moshav Fatzael set up the farm as a tourist attraction.

But then came the intifada in 2000, visitors dwindled and the farm went into debt. Various investors believed they could turn a profit raising the crocs for their skins and meat, but it seems their hopes didn't pan out.

During a visit by a reporter, Bassem crossed the rickety wooden bridge over the pool containing the adult reptiles. "Come, come, come," he called out to the creatures. Fondly recalling the old days, he added: "One time the agriculture ministers of Jordan and Israel walked across this bridge."