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Israelis rip up Gaza runway in retaliation for assaults

Powell says he lacks proof to link Arafat to arms smuggling

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli bulldozers tore up the runway of Gaza International Airport today, the latest in a series of reprisals for a deadly assault on Israeli soldiers. The military warned of further actions if Palestinian attacks do not stop.

The airport is a major symbol of Palestinian national aspirations.

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he lacks proof to link Yasser Arafat to an alleged attempt to smuggle weapons to the Palestinians but will keep pressing the Palestinian leader on the aborted operation.

If a weapons-laden ship seized by Israeli commandos in the Red Sea had reached Palestinian territory and the weapons unloaded, Powell said Thursday, they "would have been put to the worst kind of use against Israel and others in the region."

Powell said he was pleased Israel intercepted the ship last week.

"Now we have to find all those responsible and accountable for this incident," he said at a news conference.

A senior Israeli security official on Wednesday said the weapons would have been used mostly against reinforced buses that generally have not been penetrated in attacks.

But the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the rockets and mortars aboard the vessel could have threatened Tel Aviv, other large Israeli cities and Ben Gurion airport.

The official headed an Israeli delegation that briefed the Bush administration.

"The information we are receiving and developing on our own makes it clear that there are linkages to the Palestinian Authority," Powell said.

But while the Israeli official said Arafat was directly involved in the episode, hatched last June, Powell said: "I have not seen any information that yet links it directly to Chairman Arafat."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said there was "compelling evidence" that Iran and Hezbollah, a militant Islamic group fighting a guerrilla war against Israel from Lebanon, were involved in the operation.

In the West Bank town of Hebron, a Palestinian man was shot and seriously wounded today by an Israeli soldier, Palestinian witnesses said. The circumstances of the shooting were not immediately clear. The military said it was looking into it.

In Jerusalem, a 60-year-old Israeli man was stabbed and seriously wounded by a number of masked men as he was strolling on a promenade near his home. Police said they suspected the assailants were Palestinian militants.

Israeli forces also detained 11 Palestinians, eight suspected of weapons smuggling and three suspected militants, the army said.

The raids came as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hardened his rhetoric against Arafat. The Palestinian leader, who has been confined by Israel to the West Bank town of Ramallah for more than a month, "will be jailed there for years" if he doesn't arrest the assassins of an Israeli Cabinet minister, Sharon said.