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Israeli soldiers killed in West Bank after attack by Palestinians

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October 13, 2000 


RAMALLAH (AP) - A Palestinian mob killed two Israeli reserve soldiers and dumped their bloodied bodies in the street after a group of four servicemen were captured Thursday in the explosive West Bank town of Ramallah, witnesses said.

The deaths dramatically heightened tensions and left little hope Israel and the Palestinians could negotiate a truce and bring an end to two weeks of bloodshed that have left at least 94 people dead, the vast majority Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said the attack was "very grave" and canceled all appointments.

There were conflicting reports on whether the soldiers were in uniform or civilian dress. The Israeli army said the four were reserve soldiers who made a wrong turn and inadvertently ended up near the center of Ramallah, a flashpoint for recent violence.

The four were detained by Palestinian police and immediately rushed to a nearby police station. Rumors quickly spread that the four Israelis were members of an undercover army unit that tracks Palestinian fugitives, a claim the army has denied. More than 1,000 Palestinians surged toward the police station, Hillal said.

Palestinian forces tried to keep the mob at bay, but about 10 men broke through a second-floor window where the Israelis were held, according to witnesses.

Several minutes later, the attackers emerged from the station with blood-covered hands, and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers were thrown down from the second floor. The mob surrounded one corpse and shouted angrily, the witnesses said. Both Israeli bodies were soaked in blood and it appeared they had been shot in the face, the witnesses added.

A third soldier, badly injured, was handed over to Israeli forces. The fate of the fourth man was not immediately known, though Israeli media reports said he may also have been killed.

The attack on the soldiers raised grave questions about efforts by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to broker a three-way truce.

The U.N. secretary general said early Thursday that "he received assurances" that Israeli and Palestinian security officials planned to meet together with their U.S. counterparts to discuss the current unrest. However, after the events in Ramallah, it was not clear whether Israel would attend.

A resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks on a comprehensive peace settlement appeared extremely dim.

"There is no peace process today. The peace process is dead," said Israel's Communications Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said on Israeli radio, speaking before the Ramallah incident took place.

Lashing out at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Ben-Eliezer added, "Arafat's clear desire is for war, that is what he wants."

Fierce West Bank gunbattles in Bethlehem and Hebron lasted into the early hours of Thursday. The Israeli army fired from helicopter gunships on Palestinian gunmen outside of Bethlehem, Israel radio said. An Israeli soldier shot in the stomach was evacuated near Hebron where four hours of fighting kept residents up through the night.

A mosque was torched before dawn Thursday in Howara village, near the West Bank town of Nablus, and residents said they believed Jewish settlers were responsible.

Intruders smashed a window to enter the mosque, and burned down the library and the carpets before the fire was extinguished, according to Zoheer al-Dibi, a Muslim leader in Nablus.

Jewish settlers in the volatile region have expressed outrage over the recent Palestinian ransacking of the Joseph's Tomb compound, a small Israeli seminary tucked in the middle of Nablus, an overwhelming Palestinian area.

An American-born rabbi who taught at the seminary was shot dead last week and buried Wednesday in a ceremony plagued with conflict. Palestinian stone throwers and gunmen attacked settlers traveling to the funeral, and Israeli troops responded with fire from machine guns mounted on tanks.

The Palestinian fighters, members of a new Nablus-based militia, weaved in and out of narrow alleys under Israeli fire as settlers crouched behind their vehicles. Two Israeli soldiers and two Palestinians were injured.

The militia members are an offshoot of Arafat's Fatah faction in Nablus. The gunmen said they banded together to defend Palestinian towns and villages against what they said were settler rampages.

Three Palestinians were killed in clashes Wednesday, and Sami Abu Jazar, a 12-year-old boy who was shot in the head earlier in the week, died of his wounds in the hospital, Palestinian officials said. The funeral was set for later Thursday in the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians have accused the Israelis of using excessive force, but Maj. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli army's deputy chief of staff, said the military was prepared to step up its operations if the Palestinians didn't rein in rioters.

U.S. President Bill Clinton has been trying to bring Barak and Arafat together for a U.S.-hosted summit in the region in the next few days. Palestinian sources said Clinton even offered to hold separate meetings with the leaders in Israel and the Gaza Strip before arranging a three-way meeting.

However, Clinton has encountered strong resistance by the Arab world, especially by Egypt, which is hosting an Arab summit on Oct. 21.

Four Israeli soldiers are being held Thursday in the West Bank town of Ramallah, apparently in a Palestinian police station, Israeli military sources said.

Israeli officials said the soldiers apparently made a wrong turn and inadvertently ended up in Ramallah, where they were attacked by an angry crowd near the police station in the center of town.

The fate of the soldiers was not immediately known, the army said.

The capture of the Israeli troops was sure to ratchet up tensions as U.N. chief Kofi Annan and other diplomats were attempting to calm violence that has left more than 90 dead over the past two weeks.

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