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Israel Attacks Jericho Prison in Bid to Capture Militants

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Israeli forces stormed a Palestinian prison in the West Bank town of Jericho today. They were trying to seize an inmate convicted of killing an Israeli cabinet minister in 2001, as well as other militants. About 170 prisoners have surrendered, but those most sought by Israel are refusing to come out. NPR's Linda Gradstein is on the scene in Jericho, and she joins me now.

And Linda, tell us a bit about what's going on right now.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Well, what's going on right now is, basically, a standoff. The Israeli troops have surrounded the prison. There is black smoke coming out of the prison, and every few minutes, there's a boom of Israeli tank shells hitting the prison. Right now, there is a standoff going on. The Israeli commander said that Israel is not here to negotiate, and that people will either turn themselves in, or they will destroy the building with them inside. There was just another boom right now.

MONTAGNE: Why did Israel decide to seize this prison, at this particular time? These people are obviously, these militants are in prison.

GRADSTEIN: Well, this prison was being guarded by British guards. They were three to a shift. And, earlier this month, British foreign secretary Jack Straw sent a letter to the Palestinian Authority, saying that he felt that the British guards, that their safety was endangered, that the prison was not secure. And according to the Israeli senior commander on the scene, the British simply got in their cars early this morning and drove away. So, Israeli officials are blaming the British for breaking an international agreement to keep these people in jail.

The Israeli official said as soon the British left, that all of the prisoners in the jail would have been let out. In fact, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said a few days ago that he would like to see Achmed Sadat(ph), who is the head of the popular front for the liberation of Palestine. And he is jailed over the assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister from 2001. Abbas said he would like to see Sadat freed. Israeli officials said that was something that they did not intend to let happen, and that once the British left, they moved in, they said the British move was not coordinated with them.

MONTAGNE: And that's the particular prisoner that they're interested in.

GRADSTEIN: Yes, there are, they say that their main targets are actually six militants, five of whom are involved in the assassination of the Israeli cabinet minister, Rehavam Ze'evi, in 2001. The sixth was the alleged mastermind of an illegal weapons shipment to the Palestinian authority in 2002. And Israeli officials say that they want to transfer these men to Israeli jails. Achmed Sadat went on Al-Jazeera from inside the prison, and said he does not intend to surrender. He said he would rather die than surrender. The Israeli commander here on the scene, when asked about that, said, well, if that's the way he wants it, then that's the way it'll be.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Linda Gradstein in the West Bank town of Jericho, where Israeli forces have seized a Palestinian prison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Gradstein
Linda Gradstein has been the Israel correspondent for NPR since 1990. She is a member of the team that received the Overseas Press Club award for her coverage of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the team that received Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism for her coverage of the Gulf War. Linda spent 1998-9 as a Knight Journalist Fellow at Stanford University.