Palestinians gun down soldier


BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Palestinians buried an assassinated militia commander Friday in one of the largest funeral processions since the latest uprising began six weeks ago, and a half-hour later an Israeli soldier was fatally wounded in apparent retaliation.

Five Palestinians, including a 14-year-old boy, also were killed in the West Bank town of Jenin and at the Erez and Karni crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel in continued clashes between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers.

Shortly after the funeral for Hussein Abayat, a leader of the Tanzim militia who had directed sniper attacks against Israeli positions, Palestinian gunmen opened fire on Israeli soldiers guarding Rachel’s Tomb, a Jewish shrine, in Bethlehem, striking one in the neck. Israeli troops returned fire as the gunmen quickly fled. The soldier died several hours later.

The stepped-up violence came as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat asked the United Nations Security Council in New York to dispatch a 2,000-strong U.N. force to protect Palestinian civilians. Israel rejected international intervention, and the United States has said it would not support deploying U.N. forces unless Israel agrees.

Abayat’s funeral drew thousands of mourners who marched through the winding streets of Bethlehem for more than two hours under a baking sun. His was apparently the first targeted slaying of a Palestinian leader since the fighting broke out in September.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak insisted that Israel would keep targeting Palestinian militia leaders it believes are behind attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlements.

“We will continue with such operations,” he told reporters during a visit to the Israeli army’s West Bank headquarters. “We will hit those who hit us.”

Barak is to meet with President Clinton at the White House on Sunday.

Abayat was killed Thursday when an Israeli helicopter fired a missile at a pickup he was driving in his hometown of Beit Sahour. Two women bystanders also were killed in the attack, which injured three Palestinian passengers in the truck and several others nearby, according to Palestinian officials. Abayat, 37, was the father of seven children and was a regional commander in the Tanzim, the armed-wing of Arafat’s Fatah militia, which has led the uprising against the Israeli government.

The attack, which came just hours before Arafat met Clinton in Washington, was a departure for Israel in the current round of violence. Previously, it used its helicopter-fired missiles only to blast empty buildings and other facilities of Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, after first warning Palestinians to evacuate.

There was other violence Friday.

In Jerusalem, a small bomb went off just outside the walled Old City, slightly injuring a policeman, who was among thousands deployed to prevent violence after noon prayers at the al-Aqsa mosque compound. In an attempt to discourage protests, police banned Muslim men under the age of 45 from entering the mosque.

In Ramallah, Palestinian gunmen leading hundreds of rock-throwers traded fire with Israeli troops. Israeli tanks fired shells at an abandoned building from which Palestinians were shooting.

Israeli troops later imposed a closure on Bethlehem and Ramallah, barring Palestinians from entering or leaving the cities.

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