Text size

Security forces went on high alert Tuesday fearing Palestinian reprisal attacks after Israel Defense Forces troops laid siege to the Jericho prison and arrested six wanted inmates.

A tense, gunfire-punctuated nine-hour IDF siege of a Jericho prison complex ended after dark on Tuesday with the abrupt surrender of Ahmed Sa'adat and five other Palestinian militants.

Sa'adat, leader of the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine, is believed to have ordered the assassination of cabinet minister Rehavam Ze'evi in a Jerusalem hotel in 2001.

One of the other militants was Fuad Shobaki, the alleged mastermind of an illegal mass weapons shipment to the Palestinian Authority in 2002.

The PFLP threatened that "Israel will pay a heavy price for the operation."

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and asked them to keep military forces on high alert.

Israel Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi on Tuesday also ordered police units to move to their second highest level of alert. All districts were directed to deploy their personnel in accordance with Karadi's orders. Officers increased their presence in crowded public areas and at holiday and entertainment venues.

The six arrested wanted militants are to be transferred to prison in Israel, officials said.

The drama began early in the day, when American and British monitors supervising the detention of the six left the prison. The monitors had been stationed there as part of a compromise reached between Israel and the PA, which had guaranteed Israel that it would keep Ze'evi's killers behind bars.

The monitors were withdrawn in response to a statement last week by PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who said that he was prepared to free Sa'adat, drawing an angry response from Israel. Abbas said Tuesday that the British and American monitors bore "full responsibility" for the raid.

One of the five PFLP members had vowed earlier on Tuesday that the group would not surrender.

"Our prison is surrounded on all sides by Israelis. They are asking us over loudspeaker to come out," Ahed Abu Ghoulmi, one of the targeted prisoners. "We will not come out under any circumstances."

"We are not going to surrender. We are going to face our destiny with courage," Sa'adat later told the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera.

The evening surrender that came at 6:45 P.M. followed heavy gunfire directed at the prison complex. Large numbers of soldiers surrounded the prison, where six Palestinian militants were jailed.

Three Palestinians were reportedly killed in exchanges of fire with IDF soldiers. GOC Central Command Yair Naveh expressed regret at their deaths, noting the operation was not aimed at the PA security forces, but rather at arresting the six wanted inmates.

As night fell in Jericho, senior IDF officers had been concerned over increased risk to the large numbers of soldiers besieging the prison, Israel Radio reported. Palestinians on the periphery of the site were throwing fire bombs and other objects at the soldiers, witnesses said.

Witnesses said that an Israel Air Force helicopter launched a missile at the prison compound Tuesday afternoon.

An IDF colonel told reporters in Jericho that the main aim was to arrest those at the prison. Using a loudspeaker, the troops called on the militants in the jail to come out and surrender themselves.

"The objective is to arrest them, but there are no negotiations. Either they come out or they will be killed," the colonel said.

In a bid to pressure those inside into surrendering, IDF troops used machine-gun fire and tank shells on the prison Tuesday afternoon, and used bulldozers to knock down the walls.

During the afternoon, dozens of prisoners in their underwear emerged from the prison building, where they were searched and blindfolded by IDF troops. Some of them were taken away for questioning.

Military sources said Tuesday evening that the wanted Palestinians holed up in Jericho's prison gave up when IDF troops arrested a PA brigade commander.

Up until the time of his arrest, the IDF has permitted the PA's Jericho brigade commander to enter and leave the prison compound freely in order to act as a mediator between the IDF and the wanted inmates.

At the time of his arrest, the brigade commander notified his men, who were still inside the prison: "Every man for himself."

Dozens of PA officers decided at that point to exit the prison, leaving the wanted Palestinians without their human shield. The wanted inmates then decided to surrender to the IDF.

Mofaz told Haaretz he approved the plan to place a siege on the Jericho prison. He said the IDF preferred placing a "pressure cooker" on the holed-up inmates, gradually increasing that pressure, rather than storming the prison. This decision was made in an effort to save lives on both sides.

Mofaz praised the IDF and police for the success of the operation and said GOC Central Commander Yair Naveh also deserves praise for running it.