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Israelis open fire to halt deportees' march: Palestinians risk death on march to oppose Middle East peace process

REMINDING the world they have not gone away, nearly 400 Palestinian deportees, exiled by Israel to no man's land in south Lebanon in December, yesterday tramped south towards Israeli lines in what they said was a 'march to the death', only to be met by a barrage of Israeli tank and artillery fire.

In south Lebanon, at least one Palestinian was wounded by shrapnel as Israeli shells crashed within 100 yards of the deportees as they marched towards the Zemraya checkpoint, about two miles south of their camp between Israeli and Lebanese lines.

The Palestinians are demanding they be granted the right to return to their homes in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank. As dusk fell the deportees halted about 600 yards from Israeli tanks to reconsider the wisdom of their defiant but highly dangerous mission.

They had already achieved one prime aim: to win back some of the limelight which they have lost in recent weeks, and to embarrass Palestinian and Arab leaders, meeting this weekend in the Syrian capital, Damascus, to discuss the Middle East peace talks. It was because of Israel's unprecedented act of deportation that the talks were abandoned.

Israel, however, remains just as defiant as they are. As the march began yesterday, Israeli troops fired a few warning shots from an anti-aircraft battery high over the camp. About 35 Israeli soldiers then advanced about half a mile north of the Zemraya gate with an armoured troop carrier and took up combat positions near a sand barricade studded with landmines.

The deportees interrupted their march for Friday prayers, setting their prayer-mats on the road. Israel's answer was to shower more shells on the hills around and set off mines by remote control near the deportees.

''Allahu Akbar (God is most great),' shouted the deportees with each explosion, while smoke billowed up. The men smeared their faces with onions in case tear-gas was used as they sat in the road about 200 yards from a gate manned by about 20 Israeli soldiers with a water tanker.

'God, let your mercy save us from the Jews,' the men chanted as they walked on towards Zemraya, holding up copies of the Koran and wearing white headbands bearing the slogan: 'Dying for the sake of God is our purest wish. We are heading towards Palestine ready to die for our religion.'

Faisal al-Husseini, head of the Palestinian delegation to peace talks with Israel, told the United States conditions were not yet right for his side to attend the next round of negotiations in Washington, his spokesman said. Mr Husseini conveyed this to the US Consul-General in East Jerusalem, Molly Williamson, shortly after he returned from Cairo on yesterday.

'Mr Husseini had explained to Miss Williamson that the conditions do not help our attendance of the negotiations on 20 April,' spokesman Salah al-Zuhaikeh said.

Mr Zuhaikeh said this was the common feeling at the meeting in Damascus.

The start of each new round of peace negotiations has often been preceded by violent attacks by extremists who oppose the talks. Yesterday, two Palestinians were killed and eight Israeli soldiers slightly injured in an explosion at a roadside cafe in the West Bank. Israeli radio said the attack was an Arab suicide bomb that was detonated outside a snack bar, near the Jewish settlement at Mehola, about 60 miles north-east of Jerusalem.

The car, packed with gas canisters, had been parked between two buses, one for civilians and the other for soldiers. Both went up in flames. One of the Palestinians killed was a restaurant employee; the other victim was not identified.

The attack will stir up new Israeli anxiety about Palestinian militancy, after a lull in violence following the government's decision to prevent Palestinians in the occupied territories from entering Israel. The closure does not, however, prevent Israelis travelling through the West Bank.

(Photograph omitted)