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Tensions mount in Mideast on eve of Powell visit

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February 24, 2001 


JERUSALEM (AP) On the eve of Secretary of State Colin Powell's first Mideast trip, Palestinians burned U.S. flags, Israeli tanks shelled Palestinian police stations and West Bank gunmen battled Israeli soldiers Friday.

One Palestinian was killed and a second seriously wounded by Israeli fire in the latest flare-up of violence. In all, 407 people, most of them Palestinians, have been killed in five months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

Powell's visit comes at a time of growing anti-U.S. sentiment among Palestinians angry over last week's U.S.-British airstrikes against Iraq.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, about 2,000 demonstrators cheered Friday as masked men burned U.S. flags and a cardboard model of a missile with pictures of President Bush pasted on it.

After the march, dozens of demonstrators hurled stones at Israeli troops, who responded with rubber-coated steel bullets. Ten Palestinians were hurt. Later, gunmen in the crowd shot at Israeli troops, who returned fire.

Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's deputy, also known as Abu Mazen, said three bullets from cross fire hit his office in Ramallah. There were no injuries.

Powell was to arrive in the region Saturday and hold separate meetings with Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Sunday.

Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami was to have greeted Powell at the airport on behalf of the government and then join him in a meeting with caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Barak. But Ben-Ami canceled his participation in the Powell visit, and spokeswoman Yaffa Ben-Ari would not say why.

Powell's whirlwind visit was not expected to bring Israel and the Palestinians closer to a resumption of peace talks, with both having set rigid conditions.

The Palestinians say negotiations must resume at the point where they left off last month, a demand Sharon has rejected. Sharon, in turn, has said he will not negotiate under fire. The Palestinians say Israel is the sole aggressor, and demand that Israel lift its blockade of the West Bank and Gaza Strip before talks resume.

Killed in the nearly five months of violence were 335 Palestinians, 14 Israeli Arabs, 57 other Israelis and one German.

The latest flare-up began Thursday night when Palestinians fired four mortar shells at the Jewish settlements of Dugit and Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip. In response, Israeli tanks shelled two Palestinian police stations Friday and army bulldozers later razed the buildings.

Israel also blocked the main north-south thoroughfares, cutting the Gaza Strip in half. Hundreds of Palestinians walked along the Mediterranean beach to get around army roadblocks.

Fatmah Alian Jaber, 42, said she was at a Gaza hospital with her pregnant daughter and was prevented from returning to her refugee camp by the Israeli roadblocks. She joined others on foot trying to bypass the soldiers, but they opened fire.

She said Israel's actions have killed hopes for peace. ``We have nothing to lose after we have already lost everything.''

Settlers charged that the army is not doing enough to stop the Palestinian attacks. Avi Farhan, a settler leader, said the army must be allowed to take stiff measures. ``This is war, and in war there are no limits,'' he told Israel radio.

Earlier Friday, Palestinians set off several roadside bombs aimed at Israeli army patrols in Gaza. A soldier suffered minor injuries.

In the West Bank village of Al Khader, a 21-year-old Palestinian was killed in clashes with Israeli troops, witnesses said. Near the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, a Palestinian was seriously wounded in what Palestinian witnesses said was an unprovoked Israeli shooting. The army had no comment on the incidents. Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a senior aide to Arafat, said the Palestinians would ask Powell to put a stop to what he termed ``Israeli aggression.''

Sharon, in turn, said he hoped to redefine the Israel-U.S. relationship, placing less emphasis on peace talks and more on bilateral ties.

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