Four Palestinians were killed by Israeli army fire in the West Bank before dawn on Wednesday. Palestinians said three of dead were innocent civilians, while the army said all four were armed men.
In Jerusalem, visiting German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said Mideast truce talks, tentatively set for Berlin, must be wellprepared, and that he was in touch with the United States, Russia and the European Union on the issue.
The talks would be held between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Over the past two days, Fischer has been shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to help arrange truce talks. Peres has proposed a gradual truce, to be implemented first in relatively quiet areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Fischer told Israeli Parliament Speaker Avraham Burg in a meeting on Wednesday that "the only thing that can stop this crazy cycle of bloodshed ... is a total freeze of (Israeli) settlements and a total freeze of violence," Burg told Israeli radio.
The events in the West Bank began sometime after midnight, with the Israeli army and Palestinian witnesses providing conflicting accounts.
The army said a group of Palestinian gunmen tried to plant a bomb alongside the road leading to the Jewish settlement of Shavei Shomron, near the Palestinian city of Nablus.
The Palestinians were spotted by soldiers who, according to Israel radio, belonged to Egoz, a commando unit trained in guerrilla warfare.
The army said the soldiers fired at the Palestinians, and apparently wounded some of them. A Palestinian vehicle with a symbol of the Red Crescent service later arrived at the scene, with four or five armed men inside. Soldiers fired at the armed men, the army said.
Palestinians said events began with a gun battle between gunmen from Nablus and soldiers near the city. After one of the gunmen went missing, the others came to the nearby village of Beit Iba to ask residents to form a search party.
Dozens of villagers began combing the olive groves near the village, said one of the villagers, Yassid Ismail.
At one point, three of the villagers also went missing, and searches concentrated on a major road near the village used by Jewish settlers and Israeli troops.
Palestinian ambulances approaching the area came under fire from the Israeli soldiers, Ismail said. At daybreak, the villagers saw four bodies in the area, Ismail said. Israeli troops eventually permitted ambulances to take away the bodies of the three villagers, but kept the body of the gunman, Ismail said.
The three villagers were identified as Hakem Tayeh, 22, Fadi Samani, 25, and Zahir Ismail, 30. Hospital officials in Nablus said one of the men had been shot 10 times.
The gunman was identified as Ahed Fares, 23, from the Balata refugee camp near Nablus. His body was later turned over to the Palestinians.Reuse content