20,000 Israeli troops hem in Palestinians

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The Independent Online

A senior Palestinian officer, an Israel soldier and an Italian photographer were killed in Ramallah as dozens of Israeli tanks patrolled the deserted streets of the West Bank town and exchanged fire with Palestinian gunmen.

Israel's army chief, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, told a parliamentary committee that about 20,000 Israeli soldiers are now stationed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in what has been has been described as the largest–scale Israeli military operation since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Seven Palestinians and a French journalist were wounded in other incidents. Israeli tanks patrolled werer enforcing a curfe and in several locations, including Manara Square, there were fierce gunbattles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen. In one exchange, Fuad Obeidy, the deputy commander of the Palestinian security service Force 17 in Ramallah, was killed by Israeli tank fire, doctors said. A 21–year–old Israeli soldier was also killed.

After daybreak, Italian freelance photographer Raffaele Ciriello, aged 42, was killed near Manara Square. A witness to the shooting, fellow journalist Amedeo Ricucci, said he and his colleague were following Palestinian gunmen at about 9.30am when the Israeli tank appeared from around the corner.

Mr Ricucci said soldiers in the tank fired a machine gun from about 150 yards without warning,hitting Mr Ciriello in the stomach. Mr Ricucci and another colleague, both of whom work for Italian television Rai Uno, were not hurt.

An army spokesman, Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, expressed regret at the report of the death, but declined to discuss the circumstances until more information has been gathered. "There has been crossfire for several days and we don't know where he has been killed," Rafowicz said. "We are not rushing to conclusions."

A French photographer working in Ramallah was injured by shrapnel from an explosive device that went off near a group of journalists, witnesses said.

Tanks also surrounded Ramallah Hospital, keeping away ambulances, said Dr. Moussa Abu Hmeid, the head of emergency departments in West Bank Hospitals. He said Israeli troops cut off water and electricity to the hospital.

The Israeli military said soldiers inadvertently interrupted the water and electricity supply and were coordinating with Palestinian officials to repair the damage.