Mon, Jun 28, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Top militant dies in Israeli raid

ROCK THE CASBAH While the Palestinian prime minister said Israel committed a brutal crime, his Israeli counterpart called it another impressive achievement against terrorism

REUTERS , NABLUS, WEST BANK

Palestinians carry the body of a member of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Bregades in the West Bank city of Nablus on Saturday. Israeli troops shot dead six Palestinian gunmen on Saturday on the third day of a deadly raid in the area.

PHOTO: EPA

Israeli forces yesterday ended their deadliest raid in the West Bank for months after killing the West Bank commander of a militant group within Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, also of Fatah, said Israel committed a brutal and ugly crime in Nablus, a militant stronghold. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the operation another impressive achievement against terrorism.

Uncovering a hideout in a Nablus house on Saturday, soldiers killed Nayef Abu Sharkh, head of Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the West Bank, and five other gunmen, including local commanders of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups.

The brigades, whose militants have carried out dozens of suicide bombings and attacks against Israelis in a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000, promised unprecedented retaliation -- "like an earthquake," they said in a statement.

Israeli military sources said on Sunday the raid, codenamed "Full Court Press" and launched on Wednesday by paratroopers into Nablus's casbah, a warren of ancient streets, was over.

Residents said soldiers pulled out of the neighborhood and took up positions on hilltops as thousands of Palestinians gathered in the city center for the militants' funerals.

The army commander who led the ambush on the gunmen's hideout said Israel carried out the operation after preventing a bombing in Jerusalem last week planned by militants based in Nablus.

"That's the reason we acted this weekend, but even though we act, they [the militants] still manage to carry out attacks," said the officer, who could be identified under army regulations only as Lieutenant Colonel Itzik.

The killings overshadowed a visit by US Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, who urged both sides to fulfil commitments and take advantage of the "moment of opportunity" offered by Sharon's Gaza pullout plan.

Israeli troops late last month raided the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza, killing about 44 Palestinians, but have not pushed into West Bank towns with significant force since April.

Earlier on Saturday, Israeli troops shot dead another al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades armed militant in Nablus. Military sources said he had confronted soldiers. On Friday, soldiers killed two Palestinians, including one gunman in the city.

Nabil Abu Rdainah, a senior adviser to Arafat, called Saturday's killings "a grave escalation that aims to sabotage the Egyptian and American efforts to revive the peace process."

Egypt has been talking with Palestinian officials about plans to train Palestinian security officers so they can secure control over Gaza after an Israeli pullout. Israeli hardliners fear militants plan to take over Gaza after a withdrawal.

Sharon has won Cabinet support in principle for his Gaza plan, which calls for the gradual evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and another four hard-to-defend enclaves in the West Bank.

A second vote is necessary before any of the settlements, built on land Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, are uprooted. Sharon included in the Gaza plan a pledge to hold on to parts of the West Bank permanently.

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