Israeli gunships fire on Palestinian police after 21 die in weekend violence

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Israeli F-16 warplanes and helicopter gunships fired rockets at Palestinian police headquarters in Ramallah and Bethlehem yesterday in revenge for a wave of attacks that killed 21 Israeli soldiers and civilians in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, called his inner cabinet into emergency session last night amid threats by army commanders of more retaliatory strikes to come ­ and increasingly strident demands from the right to remove the gloves and destroy Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

Air force jets hit one police station only a few hundred yards from the compound in Ramallah where Mr Arafat has been marooned since December, then another near the neighbouring Al Amari refugee camp. A group of international volunteers moved into Al Amari in an attempt to deter Israeli troops from invading.

Palestinian sources reported one policeman killed and five others wounded when Israeli tanks fired at a military intelligence building in Salfit, to the north. Earlier, helicopters fired at least five missiles at Palestinian police headquarters and an arms factory in Bethlehem, causing heavy damage and setting the building on fire.

The Israeli strikes were launched to avenge a spate of deadly Palestinian attacks. At about 7am yesterday morning, a lone sniper killed seven soldiers and three civilians from a wooded hilltop overlooking a roadblock near an old police fort north of Ramallah.

Using a single-shot rifle, the gunman fired at the sentries and three civilian cars waiting to be checked. He then picked off more soldiers who rushed to reinforce them, as well as civilian rescue workers, before making his escape.

The shooting, near the West Bank settlement of Ofra, came 12 hours after a suicide bombing in an Orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhood that killed nine civilians leaving a synagogue. The dead included six children, aged between seven months and 15 years.

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a military wing of Mr Arafat's al-Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for both attacks. The head of Fatah's Tanzim militia, Marwan Barghouti, celebrated the West Bank attacks as heroic actions. "Blessed be the fighting hands of the heroes," he exulted, "who dealt these blows to the army of occupation." The Palestinian Authority condemned the suicide bombing and called for an immediate resumption of peace negotiations, but blamed Mr Sharon for escalating the violence. "Ariel Sharon's government," the PA said, "and its unrelenting campaign of terror and aggression against the Palestinian people, which took the lives of dozens and caused the injuries of hundreds of civilians during its latest military attacks, is fully responsible for this marked escalation." The Palestinian attacks were a gesture of defiance after Israeli invasions of two West Bank refugee camps in Nablus and Jenin, which left about 30 Palestinians dead and more than 100 wounded. The last troops withdrew yesterday morning.