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Israel blows up broadcast building

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RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel troops lit up the night sky with a powerful explosion that gutted the official Palestinian broadcasting building Saturday, dealing another retaliatory blow to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.

Israel said its latest strike against the Palestinians was in response to a deadly attack by militants two days earlier. Officials said the media center was targeted because it was the source of what the Israelis described as incitement throughout the Mideast conflict.

The Palestinians called the demolition part of an ongoing Israeli attempt to undermine their leadership.

"The current situation is very dangerous," Arafat told journalists at his Ramallah compound, which has been surrounded by Israeli tanks since Friday.

"I call on the international community to make an immediate move to rescue the situation before it explodes," he said. Arafat met at his besieged compound with a number of foreign visitors, including Italian lawmakers and the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, spiritual leader of the world's 77 million Anglicans.

Carey urged Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. "Religious leaders have a part to play in this," he told reporters. "Religion is not only part of the answer, but also part of the problem."

Only hours after the Israeli operation at the broadcasting building in Ramallah, in the West Bank, Palestinian broadcasting returned to the air. The Voice of Palestine operated out of several local radio stations in Ramallah while Palestine Television used alternative facilities here and in the Gaza Strip.

A few miles from the gutted building, Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli troops who have taken up positions outside Arafat's headquarters. Demonstrators threw stones at Israeli vehicles, including armored personnel carriers and tanks that had moved near the edge of the compound a day earlier.

Israeli troops responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades. Palestinian hospital officials said 22 people were injured, 10 from rubber bullets and 12 from breathing tear gas. One youth was shot in the head with a rubber bullet and was in critical condition.

The Israeli military and Palestinians also reported sporadic exchanges of live fire between the two sides but there were no reports of casualties.

The Israeli moves are part of a tough response to a Thursday night attack by a Palestinian gunman who opened fire on a girl's coming of age celebration, killing six and wounding dozens. The gunman was killed by police.

Before dawn Saturday, about a dozen Israeli tanks surrounded the hilltop broadcasting building and Israeli soldiers entered the five-story complex.

Palestinian Broadcasting Corp. chief Radwan Abu Ayyash said Israeli soldiers called over loudspeakers for the few remaining employees to evacuate the building.

A couple hours later, a huge controlled blast went off inside the building. Flames immediately engulfed the top floor and quickly spread to lower floors. By the time the fire was extinguished, the interior was gutted and the exterior blackened.

Shattered glass, a satellite dish and other debris littered the parking lot in front of the building.

The Israeli army said in a statement that it had confiscated equipment before blowing up the building. Employees said a transmitter and editing equipment were taken.

"The Palestinian television and radio station has been for a long time a center of incitement against the state of Israel, its citizens and against the Jewish people," said Israeli government spokesman Arie Mekel.

But Abu Ayyash rejected the Israeli accusation.

"This is not an (Osama) Bin Laden training center, it is not a center for heroin or drug rackets, this is something cultural, civilian and human," Abu Ayyash said.

Employees from the Voice of Palestine moved into the offices of the private local stations in Ramallah, including the Amwaj station and resumed broadcasting a few hours later on an FM frequency, rather than the usual AM bandwidth.

Abu Ayyash said two previous Israeli strikes against its broadcasting offices forced the broadcasting organization to make alternative arrangements.

The past attacks on the Palestinian communications systems knocked out transmitters and temporarily stopped radio and television transmissions, but did not substantially damage the broadcasting offices.

Saturday's operation destroyed the building that housed the corporation's archives and radio and television studios. Abu Ayyash estimated the damage at millions of dollars.

After nearly a month of relative calm, the past week has seen a renewal of the retaliatory violence that has marked the conflict, now almost 16 months old.

The Al Aqsa Brigades, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, said Thursday's attack against the Israelis was in retaliation for the death of their leader Raed Karmi, killed in an explosion last Monday that was blamed on Israel.

Arafat's seven-week confinement in Ramallah has him in a quandary. He is under pressure from the U.S. and Israel to dismantle militant groups, but such crackdowns are running into resistance from some Palestinians.

Israel has said Arafat can only leave Ramallah once the accused killers of an Israeli cabinet minister have been handed over to Israel. Palestinian police say they have arrested the head of the PLO faction that claimed responsibility for the October assassination.

Since announcing a truce Dec. 16, Arafat's security forces have arrested some militants, triggering clashes with the suspects' supporters. Israel has said the arrests were merely cosmetic and that the detained militants were often not being held.