Israeli forces kill five Palestinian militants

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The Independent Online

Five Palestinian militants were killed by Israeli forces Sunday, three in a pinpoint helicopter attack and two in a clash with soldiers, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

The helicopter fired missiles at a car in which the three men were travelling near Qabatiye in the northern West Bank, Palestinian security officials said.

All three were members of the radical Islamic Jihad, Palestinian officials said. One of them, Muhammed Psharat, was on Israel's wanted list, said the Palestinian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Nafez Azam, an Islamic Jihad spokesman in Gaza, condemned the attack as "an ugly crime," adding that the group "will not forget the blood of its martyrs."

The Palestinian Authority also condemned the attack. Yasser Arafat's media adviser Nabil Abourdeineh, said the Israeli policy of assassination "will lead to the collapse" of the ceasefire.

There was no immediate comment from the Israeli army spokesman.

Several leading Palestinian militants have been killed in Israeli helicopter attacks or by army snipers. Others have died in explosions. Israeli leaders have confirmed the policy of pinpoint attacks, but did not acknowledge responsibility for some of the killings.

Earlier on Sunday, in a gunfight which took place before first light, Israeli infantry killed two militants from another radical Islamic group, Hamas. The clash also took place in the northern West Bank. The two were carrying bombs which they intended to plant by the roadside, the Israeli army spokesman said.

The daily violence has persisted despite a Mideast truce declared nearly three weeks ago. Weekend talks between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in Portugal produced no breakthroughs, only recriminations.

But Peres defended his efforts. "We can't let the situation escalate so we have to keep talking," he said on Israeli television.

Sunday's gun battle broke out around dawn when a group of Palestinians fired on Israeli soldiers near the town of Jenin, according to Israeli Col. Efie Cohen. The Israeli troops returned fire and pursued the militants, several of whom fled into Palestinian­controlled territory. Two, however, were killed, and explosive devices were found on their bodies, the colonel said.

The two men were seeking to plant a roadside bomb and detonate it when Jewish settlers were expected to pass by later in the day, Palestinian security officials said on condition of anonymity.

Hamas released a statement identifying the men as their fighters, Mahmoud Suleiman Khalil and Jamal Deifollah Hassan. Hamas, which has carried out repeated attacks against Israeli targets, has refused to recognize the Mideast truce.

Meanwhile, the Israeli military was active on a second front Sunday. Israeli air force warplanes blasted a Syrian military radar in eastern Lebanon. Israel and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah also waged an artillery duel along their disputed frontier.

Israel said Sunday's air strike was in response to a Hezbollah bombardment Friday that injured two Israeli soldiers.

Israel withdrew its army from south Lebanon just over a year ago, bringing an end almost daily fighting that lasted for two decades. The border has been mostly quiet since then, but the latest clashes raised the specter of renewed artillery battles and air strikes in the region.

The Israeli­Palestinian cease­fire, declared June 13, has contributed to a reduction in the overall level of fighting, but it has not ended the nine months of conflict. The Israelis are insisting on a week of complete calm before the two sides move to a "cooling off" period of six weeks.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Sunday evening there must be a total, not partial halt to the violence. "There will not be any beginning of any political process whatsoever before there is an absolute halt ­ not half, nor temporary ­ but an absolute halt to terrorism and violence and incitement," he told a gathering of settlers in the southern West Bank.

Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath said a cooling off period, monitored by international observers, is the only way to "guarantee serious movement back to the peace process."

However Sharon has said there has yet to be a single day of calm since the cease­fire was declared, and he is opposed to bringing foreign monitors into the region.

If the two sides reach a cooling off period, it could include such measures as an easing of Israeli checkpoints and other restrictions on Palestinian movements. However, a precise timetable has not be announced.

Palestinian security officials insisted they were trying to prevent attacks against Israeli targets, but said the complete cessation sought by Israel is unrealistic.

"Everyone knows there will be some individuals or groups from both sides who try to stop this process through bloodshed or killings," said Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian security chief in the West Bank. "No one should be surprised if an individual attack happens here or there."

But Israel's Defense Minister Binyamin Ben­Eliezer was critical of the Palestinian effort.

"It looks like we have no one with whom to talk peace," he said. "I'm still living with the hope that the day will come when we will sit at the table."