Army kills two Israeli security guards after mistaking them for Palestinian gunmen

Israeli forces backed by a helicopter gunship shot and killed two Israelis they believed to be Palestinian gunmen yesterday.

The deaths came as the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, delayed the signing of a bill that forces him to share power with a Prime Minister. Mr Arafat asked for two procedural changes, including keeping the right to convene cabinet meetings.

The shooting took place in the remote West Bank hills about three miles south-east of the town of Hebron.

Israeli forces were scouring the area because of intelligence warnings that Palestinians were planning an attack there, the army said. A foot patrol noticed an armed man getting into a car and, after its warnings failed to stop him trying to drive away, he was shot and killed with rifle fire.

Troops saw another armed man running from the car and radioed for back-up from a helicopter gunship that shot and killed the man.

Both men were later identified as Israelis. The military expressed regret for the killings and said that it was investigating.

The website of the Ha'aretz daily newspaper said the two men were security guards who kept watch over an antenna used for research, and that the men had pulled off to the side of the road to make coffee.

Bullets riddled a white estate car's windshield, engine grille and bonnet. The word "security" was written in Hebrew on both doors and the bonnet of the vehicle.

The incident took place on a muddy hillside road just outside the Jewish settlement of Pnei Hever, where spots of blood soaked the muddy ground.

In the past 29 months of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, Israeli troops have killed dozens of wanted Palestinian militants in premeditated attacks.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, Mr Arafat's aides confirmed that the Palestinian leader had asked for changes in legislation creating the post of Prime Minister. The Palestinian Parliament approved the bill on Monday as part of a reform sought by America aimed at curbing Mr Arafat's sweeping powers. The Prime Minister will be able to form a new Cabinet and supervise the work of the ministers. The Prime Minister also convenes and chairs cabinet meetings.

After two readings in Parliament, the bill was given to Mr Arafat for a signature on Tuesday.

Mr Arafat, who is President of the Palestinian Authority, has asked that the President – and not only the Prime Minister – should have the right to convene the Cabinet, and that the President should be able to attend cabinet meetings.

The Parliament's next meeting is on Monday.

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