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Israelis Increase Security Amid Fears of Bombings

Mideast: Many Muslim worshipers are blocked from Jerusalem's Old City while West Bank clashes continue. U.S. tries to convene summit.


JERUSALEM — Thousands of Israeli riot police and soldiers blanketed this holy city Friday as the government warned that it expects Islamic militants to carry out suicide bombing attacks. Diplomats, meanwhile, struggled to stop the violence.

The walled Old City, its streets emptied for the most part of tourists and residents, resembled a war zone. Soldiers and police ringed its stone walls, guarded its gates and nervously patrolled its narrow, cobbled streets.

Hundreds of Muslims, blocked by Israeli forces from reaching the Al Aqsa mosque for midday prayers, gathered defiantly to worship outside the Old City's walls at the Damascus Gate. Small groups prayed inside the walls in lanes leading to the mosque's elevated compound. But much of the ancient city, which is sacred to the world's three major monotheistic religions and usually teems with life, looked like a ghost town.

Palestinian factions had called for a general strike and "day of rage." They were protesting Israeli attacks Thursday on Palestinian Authority targets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The attacks came hours after an enraged Palestinian mob lynched two Israeli reserve soldiers who mistakenly drove to the West Bank town of Ramallah. Businesses throughout the mostly Arab East Jerusalem were tightly shuttered, but few Muslims responded to the call to pray at Al Aqsa.

As Jews prepared for Friday's sundown start of the weeklong Sukkot harvest festival, and as thousands of Israelis gathered in the northern town of Or Akiva to bury one of the reservists killed by the mob, the Clinton administration worked to convene a summit to restart negotiations. President Clinton offered to join Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for a meeting in the region as soon as possible.

Clinton scuttled a second day of political fund-raising and campaigning Friday to conduct a frenzy of telephone diplomacy with Mideast leaders. He huddled at the White House with Vice President Al Gore, who broke off his own campaigning to return to Washington.

Clinton sought to line up moderate Arab allies to support a summit, speaking by phone with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah and Morocco's King Mohammed VI.

"This is a full-court press by the United States, along with several others, to see if we can . . . end the cycle of violence," said White House spokesman Jake Siewert.

Privately, both Palestinians and Israelis said that intensive contacts were underway and that a summit might be called as early as Sunday. But publicly, none of the parties welcomed the U.S. offer.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said the time was not ripe for such a meeting. Arafat said he would attend only if an international commission of inquiry was appointed first to determine who was responsible for the last two weeks of violence. Israeli acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said, "The situation between us cannot stand another fiasco," a reference to failed peace talks held last week in Paris.

The Americans, Israelis and Palestinians said they would meet only after a halt to the violence, which has claimed nearly 100 lives, most of them Palestinians, and left thousands wounded. But a quick end to the bloodshed seemed unlikely.

Israeli tanks continued to blockade towns and cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Firefights erupted in Hebron, Ramallah and Bethlehem, and a Palestinian was shot to death by Israeli troops in Hebron. About 100 Palestinians were reportedly injured in the clash.

More clashes were reported between troops and demonstrators when hundreds of Palestinians marched on Israeli army roadblocks in several areas.

An Israeli army spokesman said reports Thursday that a third Israeli, possibly a hitchhiker, had been killed with the two reserve soldiers in Ramallah appeared to be unfounded. A third body wasn't turned over to the army, and there is no soldier unaccounted for, according to the spokesman.

The daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot reported that a third body, burned beyond recognition, was delivered Thursday to Abu Kabir, the national forensic laboratory where autopsies are performed. No one claimed that body, and the army has no evidence that it was related to the lynching.

The army said Friday that it was on high alert after leaders of the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements were released from Palestinian jails.

"The last time this was done was in February and March of 1996," said Yarden Vatikai, spokesman for the Israeli army, referring to a series of bombing attacks in Israel. "At that time, over 60 people were killed in terror attacks inside Israel. The atmosphere is the same right now."

The army, he said, is braced for attempted bombings as Israelis head out to malls, parks and beaches to celebrate Sukkot.

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