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Violence escalates with Israeli, Hamas retaliations

Associated Press
Published July 16, 2005


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - A Mideast truce was in tatters as Israel killed six Hamas militants in a series of airstrikes Friday and early today after Palestinian fighters unleashed a deadly barrage of rockets and mortars.

The violence also pitted Palestinian against Palestinian in a Gaza neighborhood, where militants took over after driving Palestinian troops away following a gunbattle that left two teenagers dead and 25 people wounded. It was the worst internal fighting in recent years.

In a sign of U.S. concern, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice scrambled her schedule to squeeze in a trip to the Middle East.

Hamas threatened revenge for the airstrikes, which appeared to signal Israel's resumption of targeted killings of the militant group's leaders - something it agreed not to do when signing the February truce accord.

The violence threatened to intensify.

Israeli troops were massed overnight Friday at two makeshift camps outside Gaza, and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told army commanders late Friday to plan for a ground operation in northern Gaza.

After airstrikes Friday hit caves where militants were huddled and a van loaded with homemade rockets, witnesses said Israeli aircraft launched additional airstrikes early today in Gaza City and the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis.

Israel and the United States have pressured Abbas to do more to rein in armed groups. The attempted tough Palestinian police action in Gaza suggested Abbas might be responding - but raised questions about the effectiveness of that response.

The Gaza City clashes erupted after Palestinian security forces raided a neighborhood, searching for militants suspected of firing rockets.

Militants later torched a police station and set a police armored personnel carrier and three jeeps afire.

Two boys, ages 17 and 13, were killed in crossfire.

After heavy exchanges of gunfire, police pulled out of the neighborhood while masked gunmen took up positions on street corners and rooftops. Hundreds of civilians flocked to the streets, watching the fighting.

Among the wounded were six police officers and 19 civilians, hospital officials said.

Palestinian security chief Nasser Yousef said his forces will not hesitate to restore law and order, and ordered rocket attacks to be stopped by all means.

However, the militants kept attacking Israeli targets throughout the day, launching dozens of mortar shells and rockets from across the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli airstrikes signaled that Israel had run out of patience with Abbas. "We are taking these measures to stop these attacks as the Palestinian Authority refuses to do so," Sharon's office said in a statement.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the airstrikes and said they were counterproductive.

"It comes at a time when we are trying to maintain the rule of law," he said, adding that the airstrikes "undermine our ability to do so."

The Hamas attacks also were intended to underscore a Hamas demand to share power in Gaza after Israel's scheduled withdrawal next month.

But Sakher Bseisso, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, said the militants were leaving Abbas little choice but to crack down. "Hamas is trying to impose its control on the ground," he said.

[Last modified July 16, 2005, 00:25:11]


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