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Israel Kills 9 Militants in Nablus

Three wanted senior operatives are among seven are slain in one raid, the army says. Near Jerusalem, hundreds protest barrier plans.

June 27, 2004|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli troops intensifying their military operation in the West Bank city of Nablus on Saturday raked an underground hide-out with gunfire and flung hand grenades inside, killing seven Palestinian militants, three of them senior field commanders who topped Israel's most-wanted list, witnesses and the army said.

Two other Palestinians, identified by Israel as members of militant organizations, were shot and killed in separate incidents Saturday, bringing the death toll in Nablus to 11 over the last three days.

Since Wednesday evening, the Israeli military has been staging its largest operation inside the city in nearly a year. Soldiers were searching for members of a cell that Israel said was responsible for dispatching several recent would-be suicide bombers, including an 18-year-old boy caught last week at a roadblock outside Jerusalem.

The Israeli raids in Nablus, centering on its maze-like old city, or casbah, have uncovered a bomb-making facility, explosives belts used by suicide bombers and weapons caches, the army said. About half a dozen people have been arrested.

Military sources said troops discovered the militants' hideaway after chasing a wanted man into a building on the edge of the casbah.

After determining that he had entered a cave-like chamber, the soldiers broke through a false wall and threw in smoke bombs and stun grenades.

Israel described all the slain men as members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an offshoot of Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, and three were senior leaders of their respective organizations.

One of them was identified as Nayyef Abu Sherakh, the Al Aqsa commander in Nablus, who had been at the top of Israel's wanted list. Another was Fadi Buthi, known as Sheik Ibrahim, described by Israel as the Islamic Jihad commander for the West Bank. A third was Hamas field commander Jaffar Mitsri, the army said.

Abu Sherakh helped plan a string of attacks, Israeli authorities said, including twin bombings in January 2003 in a rundown section of Tel Aviv that killed 23 people.

Al Aqsa issued a statement vowing revenge, and Palestinian Authority officials condemned the Israeli strike as a serious escalation.

Palestinian medic Annan Khadri, who arrived shortly after the troops stormed the hide-out, said paramedics found the mangled bodies inside the hidden chamber. One of the men had survived the barrage but died before he could be evacuated.

While the paramedics were working, a crowd gathered and began stoning the Israeli troops, hitting the medics as well. Palestinian witnesses said several soldiers appeared to have been injured, but the army did not immediately confirm this.

The violence in the northern West Bank came as a senior American envoy called on the two sides to capitalize on momentum generated by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip by the end of next year.

"We genuinely believe that this is a moment of opportunity that none of us can afford to miss," Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns told reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, where he met with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei.

Burns urged Israel and the Palestinians to fulfill obligations under the U.S.-supported peace blueprint known as the road map. Neither side has met any of the plan's requirements, which include the dismantling of offshoots of Jewish settlements in the West Bank by Israel, and a crackdown on militant groups by the Palestinians.

The Gaza initiative has put Arafat under increasing pressure to allow reform of the Palestinian security forces. Egypt has offered to help maintain order in Gaza following an Israeli pullout, but only if such reform takes place.

The proposed Egyptian role won the approval last week of the so-called Quartet -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- although Israel has expressed reservations.

Sharon's government is also skeptical whether Arafat will abide by reform pledges.

At his half-wrecked headquarters in Ramallah, Arafat presided over the lighting of a symbolic Palestinian Olympic torch and called for a halt to violence during the Games in Athens.

Israeli officials promptly dismissed the appeal as showmanship.

Also Saturday, Israeli paramilitary police fired tear gas and stun grenades at hundreds of demonstrators protesting the barrier Israel is building in the West Bank.

The clash took place on Jerusalem's outskirts, at the planned route of a stretch of wall that will bisect several densely populated Palestinian neighborhoods.

More than a dozen people were injured.

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