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Israeli tanks level Arafat buildings

MORE BLOODSHED: Israeli police collect bodies from the burnt-out shell of a bus after it was blown up by a car bomb.

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) - Israeli troops shelled Yasser Arafat's headquarters early today, blew a hole in his bedroom wall and destroyed three buildings in the sprawling compound in response to a Palestinian suicide attack on an Israeli bus that killed 17 passengers.

Six hours later, the troops left the compound and the rest of the city of Ramallah.

Later in the day, tanks rolled into the Ramallah suburb of Beituniya and surrounded a large apartment complex, where troops arrested six men, including a suspected member of the extremist Islamic group Hamas. During the raid, troops came under fire and responded with machine gun fire from tanks and helicopters.

In the assault on Arafat's headquarters, a shell or rocket hit about five feet from the Palestinian leader's bed, punching a hole into the wall dividing his bedroom and an adjacent bathroom. The attack also blew up Palestinian intelligence headquarters, which also shared a wall with Arafat's sleeping quarters.

Pointing to his dust-covered bed, broken bedroom mirror and shattered bathroom tiles, Arafat later suggested Israel was trying to harm him. "I was supposed to sleep here last night but I had some work downstairs," he said. "Of course they (the Israelis) knew where I was. Everybody knows this is my bedroom.''

An Israeli army spokesman, Capt. Jacob Dallal, said Arafat was not the target of the operation. "If there had been any intention of harming Arafat, it would not have been a problem," Dallal said.

The assault with bulldozers and tanks came just a month after troops withdrew from the compound after a 34-day siege that confined Arafat to several rooms. Though Israel said then it wanted to isolate Arafat, the house arrest gave him hero status in the eyes of Palestinians and much of the Arab world.

There was speculation that another major Palestinian terror attack would prompt Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to expel Arafat.

Sharon adviser Raanan Gissin said, however, Arafat's ouster was not contemplated for now. "His expulsion would not solve the problem. The security services do not recommend this as the most effective solution. We will operate in accordance with the recommendation of the security services," he said.

A White House spokesman agreed that exiling Arafat would not help bring peace to the region.

"I don't think exiling Arafat solves anything," spokesman Sean McCormack said. "The issue is building Palestinian institutions and in the process, bringing the Palestinian people into the building of these institutions.''

The Palestinian leader shrugged off such a scenario today. "Expel me?" he said. "I will die here.''

The Israeli daily Maariv wrote in an editorial today that "the blood-boiling spectacle of the people who were burned to death in a bus ... needs to bring us very close to a decision to rid the region of Arafat's presence.''

However, other prominent Israelis warn that expelling Arafat might lead to chaos.

The attack on Arafat's compound was in response to Wednesday's suicide bombing in which a member of the Islamic Jihad group drove a car packed with 154 pounds of explosives alongside a moving bus and detonated the load, igniting a huge fireball. Seventeen Israelis and the assailant were killed.

Among the dead were 13 soldiers in their late teens and early 20s. "Forever 20," read the headline in the Yediot Ahronot daily today, alongside the pictures of the victims.

Islamic Jihad members said the bomber, 18-year-old Hamza Samudi, learned to drive just four days before the attack, with his handlers giving him a few quick pointers on where to find the brake, the clutch and how to shift gears. On the day before the attack, Samudi had taken his elderly father for a drive in the stolen car given to him by Islamic Jihad, neighbours said.

After the attack - the deadliest since Israel completed its six-week military offensive against Palestinian militias last month - Sharon delayed by two days his departure for Washington where he is to meet with President Bush at the White House on Monday.

A senior U.S. official said Israel did not inform the United States before the incursion into Ramallah, and Washington did not give prior approval.

Earlier this week, visiting CIA chief George Tenet warned Arafat that if he did not stop suicide bombings, he would stand alone against Israeli reprisals, a suggestion that the United States would not try to rein in Sharon.

Arafat adviser Nabil Abu Rdeneh accused the United States of turning a blind eye to what he called Israeli aggression. "It (the United States) has from the start given Israel a green light to attack our people," he said.

Israeli tanks entered Arafat's compound at about 2 a.m. today. The military said its forces took control of Arafat's headquarters "in the wake of a wave of Palestinian terrorism sweeping the state of Israel," including the attack on the bus. The statement said the Palestinian Authority is "directly responsible for terrorism that originates in its territory.''

Troops blew up three buildings, including the Palestinian intelligence headquarters.

The army said that during the operation, Palestinian security forces opened fire at Israeli soldiers who returned fire. Palestinian security officials insisted they did not shoot at the Israelis. A Palestinian security guard was killed.

It was not immediately clear what caused the damage to Arafat's three-story compound. In addition to the direct hit on Arafat's bathroom, reporters also saw a hole apparently made by a tank shell in an outer wall on the third floor. Other damage apparently was caused by the force of the nearby explosions.

In several rooms in the office building, wires and debris dangled from the ceiling, windows were shot out and pictures were shattered.

"It was terrible," said Palestinian security guard Ahmed Ali, 24. "We spent the night witnessing them destroying the buildings around us, the sound of explosions, tanks rolling around us.''

Two hours after the Israeli soldiers left today, Arafat emerged from his office building, flashing a V-for-victory sign as he was greeted by about 100 civilians at the entrance to the building. "This will only increase the steadfastness of our people," Arafat said, referring to the Israeli attack.

Elsewhere in the West Bank today, Israeli forces left the city of Nablus, which they entered a week ago to carry out a series of searches for Palestinian militants and caches of explosives and weapons.

At the beginning of a large-scale invasion of the West Bank on March 29, after an earlier string of Palestinian suicide bombings, Israeli tanks smashed into the Ramallah compound and surrounded Arafat's office, trapping the Palestinian leader until May 1.