Fears of new front in conflict as six Israelis killed

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The spectre of a new front opening up in the Middle East conflict was raised yesterday when gunmen shot dead six Israeli civilians near a kibbutz in Galilee, three miles from the Lebanese border.

The spectre of a new front opening up in the Middle East conflict was raised yesterday when gunmen shot dead six Israeli civilians near a kibbutz in Galilee, three miles from the Lebanese border.

The attack, which left at least six other Israeli civilians wounded, was in an area previously untouched by the 17-month intifada.

Last night, with 31 Palestinians also lying dead after the biggest Israeli offensive in the occupied territories since 1967, the United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan appealed to both sides to end what he said was the worst Middle East violence in a decade.

The carnage spread to northern Israel for the first time at about noon local time when at least two gunmen disguised as Israeli soldiers opened fire from a hillside on motorists near Kibbutz Metsuba, near the town of Shlomi.

"Suddenly there were shots and I saw my hand was full of blood," a woman motorist told Israeli television from her hospital bed. Drivers dashed for cover, some under a bridge, others in nearby banana fields, as they waited for police to arrive.

The dead included a shepherd, two truck drivers, a woman and her daughter. The two gunmen were killed by security forces. Police initially said the assailants apparently came from Lebanon, although the Israeli military later ruled out any infiltration from across the border.

In an apparent attempt to dissociate Lebanon from the attack, the television station of Hezbollah in Lebanon suggested that Palestinian guerrillas were behind the attack. There was no immediate comment from Hezbollah.

Kobi Levy got caught in the ambush. The career army officer said he saw five vehicles stopped at the junction, and slowed down, assuming there had been an accident. Before coming under fire, he counted five to seven people slumped over in their vehicles as if they had been hit.

"After a few seconds, they [the attackers] started to fire at me from different directions, apparently there were a few of them. Then I drove left and right, zigzagging to get away," Mr Levy said. "Then the helicopters came and they were shooting all the time at the gunmen," he added.

Mr Annan made an emotional appeal for calm. "The toll of dead and wounded, particularly among innocent civilians, has risen to levels that can be described without any exaggeration as appalling," he said in a speech to the UN Security Council. "Israeli-Palestinian tensions are at a boiling point. The situation is the worst in 10 years."

But the Palestinian leadership urged refugees in the West Bank town of Ramallah to resist Israeli troops who invaded the city in the biggest single operation in 17 months of violence.

The Israeli offensive, on the eve of a high-profile US diplomatic mission, had begun shortly after midnight on Tuesday with troops and tanks battling their way into the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, killing at least 17 Palestinians. Old people in their pyjamas ran screaming for cover down the warren of alleys as the tanks surged into the camp of 100,000 – the most densely populated in the Palestinian territories – before the army withdrew four hours later.

Eight Palestinians were killed in other violence in Gaza.

Hours later about 150 tanks rampaged into Ramallah, the Palestinian commercial and political centre, and nearby refugee camps, tearing up roads and crushing cars in the main streets. Israeli helicopter gunships opened fire on the al-Am'ari refugee camp on the city's outskirts and, as the shooting erupted in the city itself, Mr Arafat was trapped in his office.

House-to-house searches were made throughout the city, but the main target appeared to be the al-Amari camp, from where three suicide bombers, one a woman, have launched recent attacks against Israel.

Hundreds of men were taken into custody bound, blindfolded and stripped to the waist, in what the Israelis said was an operation to round up militants.

The army said soldiers had captured dozens of "hardcore" militants, confiscated weapons arsenals and located bomb-making factories in sweeps of refugee camps in recent days.

Israel's invasion of Ramallah came just a day after the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that he was lifting Mr Arafat's three-month house arrest in Ramallah, and that the Palestinian leader would now be free to move around the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Despite the scale of the Israeli offensive, it was not enough to satisfy the hard right wing of Mr Sharon's coalition. Two cabinet ministers from the ultra-nationalist National Union party submitted their resignations, saying they felt Mr Sharon's actions against the Palestinian Authority weren't strong enough. Mr Sharon still retains a solid parliamentary majority with 75 of 120 seats.