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Explosions Heard Outside Arafat Compound

Aired April 23, 2002 - 12:39   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Late-breaking news that is happening out of Ramallah, where our Nic Robertson is standing by: We are told that explosions have been heard outside of Arafat's compound, where the Palestinian leader has been holed up now for about 20 days.

Nic joins us now by phone to tell us what's going on -- Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kyra, the reports of explosions from Arafat's compound came in about 10 or 15 minutes ago. It is just about dusk here.

Things have been changing around Yasser Arafat's compound in the last 48 hours, according to Palestinian security sources, who inform us of events at Yasser Arafat's compound on the northern edge of Ramallah. What they are telling us this evening and what residents in that area are telling us they are hearing this evening: several loud explosions coming from the area of Yasser Arafat's compound.

They also say that they believe these explosions -- and they don't know for sure this time -- they believe these explosions are coming from a prison complex which directly abuts, is adjoined to Yasser Arafat's compound. Now, Yasser Arafat's compound has been partially destroyed and damaged. And the Palestinian leader and the 200 or so others who are in the buildings there are confined to a small area, are confined only to several rooms within those buildings.

The Palestinian security sources we have talked to today and yesterday have told us that they have seen an increase and a change in the Israeli army security presence around that compound. They say they have seen more activity of Israeli army soldiers around there. They say they have seen more trenches being dug, barricades going up on roads where there previously hadn't been barricaded around that area.

They also (UNINTELLIGIBLE) today, particularly the main part of the day, we've been able to see what appears to be an aerial reconnaissance surveillance balloon that is positioned -- a small blimp, if you like -- that is positioned just above Yasser Arafat's compound. That is not something we have seen here before. This device had been positioned in the recent weeks over the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. That is a change here.

Also, just before we heard the reports of explosions, Kyra, we saw two what appeared to be Israeli F-16s flying overhead -- Kyra. PHILLIPS: Nic, I know, just a couple of days ago, you tried to enter that compound and, obviously, you were not let in. Have you been able to get in touch with Yasser Arafat? Have you made attempts to get in touch with him?

ROBERTSON: We have been able to be in touch, and so have other journalists, by cell phone with some of the other Palestinians, and also some of those pro-Palestinian self-styled peace activists who are in the compound there.

One of the Palestinians we talked to earlier today told us -- inside Yasser Arafat's compound -- told us that they have sporadic phone connection, mobile cell phone connection, that their electricity was turned off between the hours of 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. yesterday, that their water supplies are sporadic.

And the chief -- one of the senior Palestinian negotiators, Saeb Erekat, earlier today told us that, in the last five days, Yasser Arafat and the 200 or so others in the compound have not been allowed by the Israeli security forces to get any new supplies of food into the compound. Now, Saeb Erekat also told us that one of the reasons, as is known, that the Israeli security forces surround that compound, they want Yasser Arafat to hand over several men they believe are responsible for the killing of an Israeli minister late last year.

However, Saeb Erekat told us that, as part of negotiations, as part of talks ongoing, the Palestinians had put forward that they are ready and willing, should the Israeli security forces withdraw, ready and willing to begin trial proceedings against those men -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Nic, when you say that there's been a change in security and they are building trenches and barricades, it sounds like they are getting ready for a fight. It sounds like a battle.

ROBERTSON: It is very difficult to judge, because it is very difficult to get close access to see exactly what is happening.

Of course, if one bears in mind, over the weekend, a group of 30 unarmed and apparently untrained peace self-styled activists, pro- Palestinian supporters, managed to get into the compound, it would also seem logical to conclude that perhaps Israeli security forces might step up their security in the area to prevent that kind of action in the future.

So, it is not possible to say whether a change in the Israeli army's deployment in that area is a prelude to the storming of the compound, as has been feared by some Palestinians, or merely that they are just trying to maintain a better grip on the area around there, considering that it was breached by those pro-Palestinian activists over the weekend -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: And, Nic, you mentioned that the Israelis are saying they are asking Yasser Arafat to hand over several men that they believe to be terrorists.

Are they basically saying that, until that happens, this is just going to continue; Yasser Arafat is going to have to remain in his compound and will not be allowed out of there until this happened? Is that set in stone?

ROBERTSON: As far as we can ascertain, as far as Palestinian negotiators are telling us, as far as Israeli security sources tell us, as far as the Israeli government says at this time, that is their position. The Palestinians, Yasser Arafat has not changed his position.

The negotiations that Yasser Arafat had on Monday with U.S. Envoy William Burns were centered on that subject, as well as a standoff at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. No progress, no special progress apparently was made, according to Palestinian negotiators we talked with.

Also, another change in recent days in the last 36 hours, according to Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat -- we talked to him. He said that they tried -- that his negotiating team -- which is not based in that compound with Yasser Arafat, that has been able, with Israeli security clearance, to attend meetings in the past -- was not allowed to attend the meeting between Yasser Arafat and William Burns yesterday.

And Saeb Erekat also said, when they tried to ask Israeli security forces if he could attend the meeting with Yasser Arafat today, again, that was turned down. So, there has been a change in circumstance, perhaps, in the last 36 or 48 hours around Yasser Arafat's compound regarding access for negotiators, regarding access for Palestinian officials. But it is not clear, at this stage, exactly what it all means, Kyra. But the developments this evening at dusk, the explosions from outside his compound, concerning Palestinian officials inside that compound.

PHILLIPS: Our Nic Robertson, live from Ramallah. We will continue to check in with you on the conditions there on Yasser Arafat's compound.




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