Israeli helicopters fire on apartment blocks

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Israeli helicopter gunships have fired rockets at apartment blocks in the troubled Gaza Strip as another five people died after the breaking of a fragile ceasefire.

Israeli helicopter gunships have fired rockets at apartment blocks in the troubled Gaza Strip as another five people died after the breaking of a fragile ceasefire.

They opened fire after Palestinian protesters attacked a checkpoint and used the apartments as a hiding place.

It followed earlier clashes and fierce gun battles on the sixth day of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

One of the latest victims died as Israeli troops, backed by helicopters, moved to secure the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip.

It brings to 55 the number killed in six days of fighting.

Fighting has also erupted in the volatile West Bank, at a Jewish holy site in the town of Nablus and in the divided city of Hebron. Israeli forces also opened fire on stone-throwing protesters in Ramallah.

The renewed violence took the death toll to 50. Almost all the dead were Palestinians or Israeli Arabs.

The two sides are still expected to meet for peace talks in Paris tomorrow with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

"We are going to try to defuse this," Albright said.

It is believed Albright will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat separately.

The Palestinians have said they welcomed mediation.

Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said: "We welcome any meeting, but at the same time, we say if the crisis should reach an end, it needs an Israeli decision to stop the aggression against the Palestinian people."

And in a statement, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said only "strident decisions and measures" by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "can bring an end to the violence and bloodshed."

Today's clashes ended a ceasefire agreed by security officials yesterday. Some Israeli troops had even packed up their equipment and returned to base under the agreement.

They are also due to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt on Thursday to try to halt the violence which began when right-wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon visited a Jerusalem shrine which is holy to Jews and Muslims.

Palestinians said the visit "defiled" Al-Haram al-Sharif, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

Mubarak said the gathering will be held at the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, where Arafat and Barak met last year and signed an interim peace deal.

"The aim of such a summit is to lay the foundations for a comprehensive settlement for all the outstanding questions," Mubarak said.

"In this case I will only attend the beginning of the meeting and then leave them alone to hammer out details."

The latest violence has mainly been in Palestinian-ruled areas on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, lands occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

But the clashes have also spread to Arab-Israeli areas in northern Israel. The Jerusalem Post newspaper said it was the worst civil unrest in Israel since the Jewish state was founded in 1948 in parts of what was the British mandate of Palestine.

In all, 39 Palestinians, eight Israeli Arabs, an Israeli border policeman, an Israeli soldier and an Israeli Jewish civilian have been killed.

Meanwhile, the father of a 12-year-old boy whose death in an Israeli-Palestinian gun battle was captured on television and moved people across the world, has urged the international community to avenge his son's death.

"I hope the world won't forget Mohammed and will avenge his killing by Israel," Jamal Aldura, 37, said from his hospital bed in the Jordanian capital Amman.

"I feel immense pain from my son's death."

Mohammed died on Saturday near an Israeli army post close to the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip.

His killing, captured by French Television and shown across the world, has come to symbolize the terror and violence felt across Palestinian territories and Israel during six days of clashes.

Caught in an Israeli-Palestinian shootout, Mohammed and his father, huddled behind a small metal barrel as bullets whizzed past, the boy weeping in terror. Moments later, Mohammed was fatally hit.

Jamal Aldura was admitted to the King Hussein Medical City, a military hospital on the outskirts of Amman, on Sunday when he underwent surgery to remove bullets from his elbow, both legs, and his right thigh. Doctors said he was in stable condition.

The Israeli army said the boy had apparently been killed by Israeli fire.

"This was a grave incident, an event we are all sorry about," Israeli army chief of operations, Giora Eiland, told Israel radio.

"We conducted an investigation ... and as far as we understand, the shots were apparently fired by Israeli soldiers."

Other army officials said the boy may have been throwing stones at the Netzarim outpost Saturday, and that his father arrived at the scene to retrieve him.

The boy's mother, Alia, said father and son had been walking in the area and stumbled into the gun battle. She said her husband had kept his son close that day because he did not want him to be drawn into the riots.

Jamal Aldura said he and his son were returning home from visiting a car dealer in Gaza when they were caught in the battle. "They started shooting at the taxi we were in and we got out to seek better shelter," he said.

"We didn't have anything to do with the clashes," said Aldura, a construction worker and father of seven children, including the deceased boy.

"The Israeli fire was heavy, although I was shouting and begging them to stop, for the boy's sake," he said. "But they never stopped and poor Mohammed died in my lap and my body was punctured with bullets.

"Had I known death was Mohammed's fate, I wouldn't have left my house and my family that day."