Ambush kills 13 Israelis but Sharon stays on the attack

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Thirteen Israeli soldiers were ambushed and killed yesterday when Palestinian fighters counter-attacked against Israel's offensive on the West Bank.

Within hours of the deaths in the alleyways of the Jenin refugee camp, Ariel Sharon said in a broadcast to the nation that Israel's military onslaught would continue until the Palestinian militias were "crushed".

The soldiers died in Jenin's refugee camp, which Israeli commanders say contains a core of fighters armed with explosives who are refusing to surrender. At least 100 Palestinians, including civilians, have been killeddefending the camp from Israeli helicopter rockets, tank shells and ground troops.

Major-General Yitzhak Eitan, head of Israel's central command and in charge of the offensive, said Palestinian fighters ambushed his soldiers by blowing up a booby-trapped building as a patrol went past.

The general made clear that his forces would defy intense international pressure to pull out, including a rebuke from Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who said Israel had still not done enough. General Eitan said: "This group refused, and still refuses now, all our requests to surrender. We will continue to fight as long as necessary despite the loss. We will continue until we make this camp submit."

The soldiers' deaths have come at a particularly sensitive time, because Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, is due to arrive in Jerusalem tomorrow.

General Powell, in Cairo yesterday for a meeting with Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian President, said he would meet Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, when he arrived. Mr Sharon's office described this decision as a "tragic mistake".

The deaths of the soldiers came only hours after Israel had withdrawn its forces from two Palestinian towns in the West Bank in an effort to show it was complying with President George Bush's demands. But even before Mr Sharon's condemnation of the killings, the Israeli withdrawal was undermined when the army moved into the town of Dura, south of Hebron.

The ambush will undercut claims from Israel that the fighting in Jenin is almost over. General Powell said of the claimed withdrawal: "Let us hope this is not a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but the beginning of a pull-back."

The Jenin camp has been the scene of the heaviest fighting since the Israeli army moved into West Bank, and the fiercest resistance the Israeli army has encountered from the Palestinians for years. Twenty-two Israeli soldiers have now died at the camp. More than 100 Palestinians have been killed, according to Israeli military sources. Palestinian sources say it is many more.

The camp is defended by Palestinian gunmen, but is packed with civilians.

Yards away from the bombing, a second group of Israeli soldiers came under fire from Palestinian snipers on rooftops. As well as the 13 who died, nine Israeli soldiers were wounded, one of them critically. All 13 dead were reservists.

In America, Ari Fleischer, President Bush's spokesman, repeated the demand for an immediate withdrawal. He said: "He [Bush] is still looking for results. The President's message remains that both parties, all parties, have responsibilities. Israel's are to withdraw and to do so now. The Arab nations' responsibilities are to exercise statesmanship, create an environment for peace by condemning terrorism, by stopping the funding of terrorists, by stopping the press that engages in hatred against Israel or Jews."