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Minister backs off arrest of militant

Palestinian faces test on security

JENIN, West Bank -- A militant brazenly challenged the new Palestinian security chief yesterday, firing his weapon outside police headquarters in this West Bank town as the commander was holding meetings in the building.

The chief ordered the gunman's arrest, but quickly backed down and let him walk away.

The confrontation between Interior Minister Nasser Yousef and Zakariye Zubeydi, a militant who is seen by residents as the ruler of Jenin, illustrated the delicate balance the Palestinian Authority must strike between reining in armed groups through persuasion and fending off international calls for a crackdown.

Yousef, a tough former general who oversaw a crackdown on militants in 1996, took office last week in a Cabinet reshuffle. He is Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas's personal choice for security chief and has been touring West Bank towns to take stock of what is left of the security forces.

In Jenin, Zubeydi rose to prominence as the local leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent group with ties to Abbas's ruling Fatah movement.

Yesterday, Yousef drove into the adjacent Jenin refugee camp in a motorcade of several cars filled with bodyguards. During the tour, armed militants walked around the camp, but there was no contact between them and the security chief.

After Yousef reached Jenin's police headquarters, Zubeydi and seven of his followers marched into the compound, and three began shooting in the air.

Several police officers tried to stop the shooting and asked the gunmen to leave. One officer tried to wrest the gun away from one of Zubeydi's followers. One militant, in turn, pointed his rifle at one of the soldiers. Zubeydi ordered the men to stop firing and they left.

Zubeydi said he was upset that Yousef had not coordinated the meeting with him and demanded the security chief leave.

Yousef responded by firing the local security chief, Fayez Arafat, bringing 600 police officers to the headquarters as reinforcements, and demanding Zubeydi's arrest.

''We are not leaving Jenin before we have arrested this bunch of criminals," Yousef said, according to witnesses.

Yousef quickly backed down, however, and met with Zubeydi, who returned to the building armed with a rifle and wearing a bulletproof vest. Zubeydi walked away a free man.

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