BRITAIN made a robust defence yesterday of its decision to pull out of Jericho prison before an Israeli raid, citing fears that its monitors would be kidnapped, and painting a portrait of a jail controlled by inmates living in luxury.
Palestinian guards confirmed yesterday that Ahmed Saadat, a leading militant captured by Israeli troops in the raid, kept birds and flowers in his quarters. Western officials said that Saadat in effect used other prisoners as "domestic staff".
An official told The Times that Fuad Shobaki, the alleged moneyman behind a 2002 weapons shipment intercepted by Israel, smoked up to five Cuban cigars a day and was known as "The Brigadier" to inmates and staff. He was also seized.
"Saadat and Shobaki were very much in charge," one prison source said. "These guys were running the prison. They did what they wanted, when they wanted."
Details of how prisoners allegedly broke the rules emerged yesterday as Palestinians protested on the streets, accusing Britain and the US of colluding with Israel in the raid on Tuesday. Palestinians are furious that Israeli troops took away six wanted men in total. Saadat, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader, is suspected of ordering the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, refused to say whether he thought Britain had colluded with Israel over what he called an "unforgivable crime". But he said that Israeli troops arrived ten minutes after the last three British monitors had left.
"I'm giving the facts," Mr Abbas said. "They left at 9.20am, and the Israelis came in at 9.30am. How can we explain that?" Saeb Erekat, a senior Abbas aide, voiced suspicion that the monitors had left before the formation of a new government. "If the British and Americans wanted to leave because they don't want to deal with a Hamas government in a couple of weeks then they should have done it in a different fashion," he said.
Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman, said that Israel had asked for the monitors to remain. "There was an Israeli request last week to the British and Americans that the monitors stay on. We wanted the status quo to be maintained."
But British sources spoke of a "credible and specific" warning this year that the PFLP had planned to free its prisoners, "possibly taking the monitors hostage". They also cited warnings last year that militant groups planned to kidnap monitors. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has released a letter to Mr Abbas from John Jenkins, the British Consul-General, and his American counterpart giving final warning that the monitoring would end unless the Palestinian Authority ensured "full compliance" with the monitoring agreements and improved the security of the US and British personnel.
It followed reports by monitors that the six prisoners had access to computers, mobile phones and were not "locked down" at night. The monitors said that they were forbidden to search cells and that mobile phone jammers were switched off.
Israeli newspapers yesterday reacted with glee to the seizure, trumpeting "We Got Them" and "The score is settled". Ehud Olmert, the acting Israeli Prime Minister, said that the six would be put on trial over the death of Mr Zeevi, who was killed by the PFLP in 2001 in retaliation for Israel's assassination of its leader, Abu Ali Mustafa.
Yesterday UN offices across the West Bank and Gaza remained closed as a precaution after the mayhem on Tuesday when offices were attacked and international staff kidnapped. But Sami Musallam, the Palestinian governor of Jericho and the Jordan Valley, dismissed concerns over the monitors' safety as "bullshit".
He said that in four years the six inmates had not left jail except to go to the mosque, dentist and hospital. He added that Shobaki was not allowed visits from his wife. "We have always depended on the British and Americans to be the guarantors of agreements between us and the Israelis," he said. "We put a lot of trust in them, and now they have lost our confidence."PRISON PERKS
Monitors complained that Saadat, Shobaki and the four other "special" prisoners were given the run of the compound by Palestinian guards
They were not "locked down" at night
They were never separated from the 300 other prisoners
They had mobile phones and computers; Shobaki ordered the monitors' phone jammers to be turned off
They had up to 90 visitors a week and used other prisoners "as domestic staff"
Saadat kept birds and had a big book collection
Inmates and guards referred to Shobaki as "brigadier". He smoked up to five Cuban cigars a day