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Mideast Violence Rages; Arafat Rejects Exile Offer

Israeli Prime Minister Sharon told Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that he could leave his Ramallah compound, but it would be a “one-way-ticket” out of the country.

During the day, the broadened Israeli campaign reached towns and holy sites where Palestinian gunmen had previously found refuge. Israeli troops rounded up about 400 suspected militant Palestinians after the U.S. and European officials brokered their surrender.

Israeli tanks blasted away at the heavily fortified Palestinian security compound of West Bank Security Chief Jibril Rajoub throughout Tuesday night, claiming that senior rebel militants were inside the compound.

In Bethlehem, Israeli helicopter gunships hovered over Manger Square and exchanged fire with Palestinian gunmen near the Church of the Nativity, considered the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Several armed Palestinians had taken refuge inside the shrine.

Israeli jets also fired rockets at Hezbollah positions in Lebanon in retaliation for Monday’s attack by Lebanese guerrillas on disputed Israeli territory. No injuries were reported, but it was the third such clash in four days, raising concern of a wider Arab-Israeli war.

Tuesday’s fighting marked the fifth day of “Operation Protective Wall,” launched by Israel to uproot militants blamed for a string of suicide bomber attacks on Israeli streets. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the offensive would last three to four weeks.

A suicide bomber died at a checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank this afternoon, but no other injuries were reported. It is the seventh suicide bombing in as many days.

The death count increased from last week’s bombing at a Passover banquet, as two Israelis wounded in the attack died today. The death toll is now 24, the deadliest Palestinian attack in 18 months of fighting.

Earlier today, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed that Arafat be sent into permanent exile.

“I told [European Union envoy Miguel Moratinos], if they would like, they will fly with a helicopter and will take [Arafat] from here,” Sharon said. “Arafat will not be able to return.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell immediately dismissed the idea, stating Arafat could “conduct the same kind of activities” from various places.

“Until he decides he’s going to leave the country, it seems we need to work with him where he is,” said Powell, while cautioning Sharon to “take care” in his offensive noting a political situation must ultimately be found.

Palestinian leaders immediately rejected the idea of exile for Arafat.

Around the world, the European Union and Russia urged Israel to grant Arafat freedom of movement, with representatives from Britain insisting Arafat should be allowed to remain in the Palestinian areas and Sweden saying his presence could ultimately help peace efforts.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer appealed to Israel to allow international peace envoys to see Arafat.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana suggested the Middle East would be best served if both Sharon and Arafat stepped aside and allowed new leaders to move in.

“Neither is a saint, and sometimes I’m inclined to think that perhaps a new generation of persons in Israel and Palestine could in the 21st century come up with a solution,” Solana said. “They have faced many battlefields, and it hasn’t escaped me that there is something personal between Arafat and Sharon.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department issued a stronger warning for Americans to avoid travel to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and announced that dependents of American diplomats in Jerusalem may return to the U.S. on government expense if they wish.

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