Israelis Destroy Palestinian Compound

Israeli forces blew up the fortress-like Palestinian headquarters where the army had said wanted Palestinians were holed up, taking down a quarter of it in one blast and leaving only rubble with a second early Saturday, said nearby residents.

"I saw hills of rubble," said Mohammed Maswadeh, whose windows were blown out by the blast about 120 yards away. "There's nothing called the headquarters anymore."

The Israel army would only say its operations were continuing in Hebron, but Palestinians living in three other homes around the compound all told The Associated Press the building was no longer standing.

Before the second blast, the Israeli army commented on an earlier explosion that sent sparks and flames into the night sky. The army said then that its forces had rigged a part of the building where it believed the wanted men had been hiding, ignoring four days of calls to surrender.

Military officials have said about 15 wanted men were believed to be holed up in the building. The army spokesman's office refused to say whether soldiers had confirmed any deaths or if there were any fresh indications of the number of people inside.

Heavy fog settled in over the area before the second blast, and electricity failures in the area made it difficult to see the extent of damage. Curfews and an Israeli military order barring journalists made it impossible to approach.

Maswadeh compared the second blast to an earthquake, saying everything in his house shook: "I'd never seen an explosion like that. The cars nearby blew into the air and dropped down."

Ibrahim Shehadeh's view used to be the headquarters. "Now, I can see everything from my house — the whole of Hebron," he said. The building "is demolished."

The compound was surrounded early Tuesday as part of a West Bank military offensive that has confined 700,000 Palestinians to their homes while soldiers search for Palestinians suspected of links to deadly attacks on Israelis. The open-ended campaign, prompted by twin suicide bombings that killed 26 Israelis, began 10 days ago.

The compound, used in the past as a base for British, Jordanian and Israeli forces, today houses offices of the Palestinian Authority's local governor and security forces. Scores of police had walked out of the building over the past four days, and the army said that 20 wanted men gave themselves up and were arrested.

Apache attack helicopters circled in the sky after the first explosion, which sent sparks high into the night sky. Smoke and fire could be seen then from a ground-floor corner of the building, with flames flaring up the side of the four-story building before quickly dying down and out. That blast, witnesses said, had blown out about a fourth of the building, already badly damaged by missile fire and military bulldozers.

"The (army) operated in the Palestinians' security compound and detonated in a controlled manner a part of the building where wanted Palestinians were taking refuge and refused to turn themselves in," said the army statement released before the second blast.