Clinton tries to stop backlash after massacre: Peace talks in peril despite Rabin's denunciation of 'loathsome act of murder' by militant Jewish settler who opened fire on worshippers in Hebron mosque

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The Independent Online
ISRAELI and Palestinian leaders sought to keep Middle East peace talks on course yesterday as the Palestinian death toll in the morning's Hebron massacre rose to 54.

President Bill Clinton said negotiations would switch from the Middle East to Washington to underpin United States backing and reduce any emotional backlash. He added: 'Extremists on both sides are determined to drag Arabs and Israelis back into the darkness of unending conflict.'

In New York, the United Nations Security Council was due to meet last night to discuss the massacre, after a request for a meeting from the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The PLO called for a 'direct international presence' to protect Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Throughout Israel and the territories it was feared the killings would lead to escalating violence. Bloody protests erupted in the Gaza strip and parts of the West Bank. In the Jordanian capital, Amman, thousands of angry Palestinians demonstrated. An elderly British tourist was stabbed and slightly wounded in the city.

The Hebron killings, by a militant Jewish settler, may focus attention on countering the threat of extremist settlers who seek to undermine the peace process and who enjoy full Israeli army protection. Palestinians called on the Israeli government to disarm immediately the 130,000 Jews in the Israeli-occupied territories.

Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish army reserve captain who came to Hebron 10 years ago from Brooklyn, opened fire on Muslims in the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Many Palestinian witnesses said he was not acting alone. Hebron was a stunned town under curfew yesterday. Survivors seeking relatives spoke of the mosque floor being awash with blood.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, facing his greatest crisis since the signing of the September peace accords, said: 'A loathsome, criminal act of murder was committed today at a site holy to both Jews and Arabs in Hebron. This is a difficult day for all those - Jew and Arab - who seek peace. The crazed actions of disturbed individuals will not prevent reconciliation between the citizens of Israel and the Palestinian people.'

Palestinian leaders said Israel's 'regrets' were not enough. Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said the massacre endangered progress on the Gaza-Jericho accords.

Israeli leaders are under pressure to explain how a settler, dressed as a soldier, was able to infiltrate the Muslim area and open fire while at least 10 soldiers stood guard. Witnesses saw other settlers, also dressed as soldiers, handing the gunman ammunition before he was beaten to death.

At least 10 worshippers who died were believed to have been killed by soldiers firing in the panic after the first attack. Six Palestinians were killed when protests erupted outside the main Hebron hospital where bodies were being taken.

Hebron has more than 7,000 Jews and 150,000 Arabs. It has long been the focus of concerns about extremist violence, but the Israeli government has done little since September to clamp down on settlers who have openly declared 'war' on Arabs and been responsible for killings.

Leaders on both sides have been bracing themselves for such an attack. Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement opposed to peace talks, has killed some Israelis, but this is the largest killing of Arabs since 1967.

(Photograph omitted)

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