updated 12/8/2006 6:02:47 PM ET 2006-12-08T23:02:47

Israeli police captured an escaped serial rapist in northern Israel Friday night, ending a two-week saga that captivated the country's attention, humiliated police and caused nationwide panic.

Benny Sela, who was serving a 35-year sentence for 16 sexual offenses, most of them rapes, bolted from police custody Nov. 24 as he was being led to a Tel Aviv courthouse. The police came under intense criticism for the debacle, and the ensuing massive manhunt riveted the country.

Israeli Police Chief Moshe Karadi told Israel's Channel 1 TV on Friday that Sela, a known master of disguises, was captured in the northern coastal city of Nahariya.

Israeli media reported that Sela, 35, was caught driving a stolen vehicle and once apprehended, did not cooperate with police, pretending to be an Arab. Even after police positively identified him, Sela refused to answer interrogators' questions, officials said.

Thousands of police officers scanned every corner of the country during a two-week manhunt, with huge billboards bearing Sela's image plastered on buses and streetposts asking for the public's assistance.

Many appearance changes
Recent pictures of Sela — thin, unshaven and with thick black hair — along with images of him in various disguises he had used in the past accompanied pages of stories about the hunt in major newspapers. Sela was jailed in 1999 after eluding police for several years by changing his appearance and identity.

Police received dozens of alleged sightings throughout the country, and the streets of Tel Aviv, where Sela had targeted most of his victims, were said to be emptier than usual because women were afraid to leave their homes. The ability of Israel's most notorious sex criminal to elude authorities for so long further humiliated the police.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter called the initial escape a "fiasco" and ordered an independent investigation, which issued a scathing report on Thursday.

"I hope his days as a free man are over," Dichter declared after Friday's arrest.

Sela escaped from two police officers in the parking lot of a Tel Aviv courthouse. After entering the building with the officers, Sela told them he forgot something in the car and headed back to the lot with one of the police. Then, he suddenly raced away, climbing over a wall and escaping to the streets of Tel Aviv.

The search dominated newscasts, bumping even Israel's cease-fire agreement in the Gaza Strip as the top story in the country.

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