Friday, 1 April 2005

Palestinian gunmen shoot up restaurant favoured by PA

Posh eatery had played host to Canadian ministers and other visiting dignitaries

Friday, April 1, 2005 Page A15


Special to The Globe and Mail

RAMALLAH -- Until the gunmen opened fire on Wednesday night, Darna was the smartest restaurant in Ramallah. Daylight yesterday revealed piles of broken furniture, shattered glass and bullet holes in the sparkling stainless-steel kitchen.

This week, Darna played host to Ken Dryden, the Minister of Social Development. Justice Minister Irwin Cotler was there a couple of months ago. Other visitors pictured on the kitchen wall include Kofi Annan, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter.

The attack on the prestigious restaurant, a favoured watering-hole for Palestinian ministers and socialites that opened in December of 2003, was carried out by angry members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the terrorist wing of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas's mainstream Fatah group.

Officially, the Brigade denied any involvement, but the gunmen wore no masks and were easily identified by eyewitnesses as the fugitives who fled to the Mukata presidential compound in Ramallah under the protection of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to escape arrest or assassination by Israel.


Mr. Abbas has been conducting intensive talks with the fugitives, ending with a request for several of them to leave the compound.

They refused, and instead went on a rampage through Ramallah, firing shots at Mr. Abbas's office and wrecking several restaurants. Across town, their supporters burned tires and threatened Palestinian police officers.

A Palestinian security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the security forces ordered six of the fugitives to either hand over their weapons or leave the compound after "they were involved in kidnappings, blackmailing, harming people, shooting them."

"They were warned many times to stop their behaviour and actions," the official said.

Another security official warned that the security forces were "considering taking harsh steps against them."

"They have crossed the red line. They attacked the presidential headquarters. They are defying the Palestinian Authority and now we have to take harsh steps against them, otherwise they will control the city and spread chaos," the official said on condition of anonymity.

The fugitives were still reeling from the death of Mutasen Al-Aqra, 26, a leader and founder of the al-Aqsa Brigade who had been living in the Mukata for three years. He was killed in a mysterious car crash on Tuesday.

"We didn't do it," said Ramzi Abeid, a Mukata fugitive identified by many of those present at Darna as the leader of the rampaging gang.

"We are Fatah, we take our orders from Abu Mazen," he insisted, using Mr. Abbas's popular nom de guerre.

Off the record, the Brigade said the sacking of Darna was supposed to send a message to the Palestinian leadership not to ignore them. The venue was chosen as a place where senior officials routinely spend hundreds of dollars entertaining their friends, as a warning to end the still rampant corruption in the Palestinian Authority.

Darna's proprietor, Osama Khalaf, gazed forlornly at the wreckage and quietly cursed those responsible.

"I hope this means the end of those gunmen," Mr. Khalaf said. "They are playing against their own people. The Palestinian Authority should take measures."

As visitors went by to express sympathy and young men toting Kalashnikov rifles stood guard outside, Mr. Khalaf said he would not be intimidated.

"I built this place," he said. "I invested during a very critical time: the invasions, the closures, the checkpoints. The Israelis didn't frighten us, so those people won't frighten us either. We will continue and become even more successful."

Yesterday, the dozen or so fugitives still living in the Mukata had disappeared. Green-uniformed paramilitary police patrolled the city in a show of strength.

The incident demonstrated the fragile nature of Mr. Abbas's attempt to dissuade the gunmen from the path of terrorism and incorporate them into his security services. He has been paying them 800 shekels a month (about $200 U.S.) and offered them jobs with the security forces, but they are demanding more money and a more specialized role that recognizes their patriotism in fighting Israel.

The confrontation with the Brigade is while Mr. Abbas tries to defuse the militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, bringing them all under the political banner of an expanded Palestine Liberation Organization.

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