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Palestinian Fusillade Kills 2 Israelis

Mideast: Pair of gunmen open fire in town north of West Bank, wounding dozens before being shot dead by police. U.S. envoy views aftermath.


JERUSALEM — Two Palestinian gunmen opened fire in the heart of a northern Israeli town Tuesday morning, killing two people and wounding dozens before police shot them dead.

The attack in Afula took place as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was about to launch a helicopter tour of Israel's pre-1967 border area with retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni. Zinni arrived in Israel on Monday to broker an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire.

Aides said the two flew over the chaotic scene minutes after the shooting and watched as the wounded were evacuated from bloodstained streets. Fifteen people remained hospitalized Tuesday night, five of them in serious condition, according to hospital officials.

It was a chilling introduction to the bloody nature of the conflict for Zinni, former head of the U.S. Central Command and a novice in the tortured world of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Israeli officials said the shooting proved their contention that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is doing nothing to prevent attacks. Palestinians said it was an inevitable reaction to Israel's killing last week of the military leader of Hamas, a militant Islamic organization.

After nightfall, an Israeli woman was killed and three other people, including a 2-year-old girl, were wounded when a Palestinian ambushed their convoy, opening fire on it near Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. The army said soldiers shot the gunman dead. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.

Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman said Israel has killed 56 Palestinians in less than a month, and he blamed Sharon for inciting violence. But Tuesday's attacks are sure to put Arafat on the defensive today as he holds his first talks with Zinni and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns.

Late Tuesday night, the Palestinian Authority issued a statement denouncing the attacks.

"The Palestinian leadership strongly condemns the two attacks in Afula and Gush Katif which targeted Israeli civilians," the statement said. "At the same time it condemns all attacks on Palestinian and Israeli civilians."

The U.S. envoys are expected to push Arafat hard to prevent further attacks on Israelis and meet Sharon's condition of seven days of absolute quiet before Israel will begin easing measures against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. It is unclear, however, whether Arafat has the ability to enforce a cease-fire, with gunmen determined to take revenge for Israeli killings of militants and civilians.

Two Palestinian factions, the radical Islamic Jihad and a military group associated with Fatah, the organization that Arafat founded, claimed responsibility for the Afula shootings. In a statement to the Reuters news agency, the two groups said they carried out the attack to avenge the death of Hamas leader Mahmoud abu Hanoud, who was killed Friday in an Israeli helicopter gunship attack not far from the West Bank town of Jenin. The two shooters were from the Jenin refugee camp.

Israel had pulled troops out of Jenin only hours before the gunmen entered the center of Afula in a car with fake Israeli license plates, according to police. Afula lies just 10 miles north of Jenin. Some right-wing Israeli lawmakers demanded that Sharon send the troops back into Jenin in the wake of the attack.

According to witnesses, the gunmen, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, opened fire near the central bus station about 11:30 a.m. They shot a man in the head, shot a woman who apparently grabbed one of them from behind, then began shooting indiscriminately at passersby as they headed for the town's open-air market. The shooting continued for about seven minutes before they were cornered by police and killed.

A woman identified as Sara Barliah on Israel's Channel 2 news described fleeing for her life as one of the assailants pursued her.

"I heard the shots. People started running around. The bullets were everywhere. I could see two terrorists holding guns and chasing us," Barliah said. One of the men headed straight toward her, she said. She was shot in the hand as she ran.

Someone threw leftover campaign banners from Sharon's race for prime minister--Hebrew slogans promising "Only Sharon Can Bring Peace"--over the bodies of the two gunmen where they lay in a parking lot.

Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Brigade, a military wing of Fatah, released a videotape showing the heavily armed gunmen. One was identified as Abdel Karim abu Nasa, 20, who reportedly was a Palestinian policeman and Fatah activist. The other was identified as Mustafa abu Srieh, an Islamic Jihad member.

Zinni told reporters that the Afula attack underscored the need to stop the violence.

"I think this points out the importance of gaining a cease-fire, and as the prime minister said, the cease-fire is what we need so we can get on to something more comprehensive and more lasting," he said after spending most of the day with Sharon.

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