Israeli missile attack endangers truce

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The Independent Online

A four-month-old Middle East truce came under renewed strain yesterday as an Israel missile attack killed a Palestinian militant after a barrage of mortar attacks on Jewish settlements in Gaza.

A four-month-old Middle East truce came under renewed strain yesterday as an Israel missile attack killed a Palestinian militant after a barrage of mortar attacks on Jewish settlements in Gaza.

Palestinian security forces were reportedly involved in clashes with militants after angry complaints by Israel that they had not done enough to quell more than 20 mortar and rocket attacks mainly launched at Gush Katif, the biggest settlement block in the Gaza strip.

An Israeli missile was fired at a militant unit in the southern town of Khan Yunis which the Israel Defence Forces claimed was about to launch another attack on settlers. A member of the unit, severely wounded in the attack, was said later by Palestinian medical sources to have died in hospital last night.

The clashes, among the most serious since a truce in early February, followed the death of another Hamas armed operative the previous night during exchanges of fire on the southern Gaza border with Egypt. Israel said the man had died when the explosives he was carrying accidentally blew up.

Military sources said Israel was still seeking to prevent renewal of the conflict. But Israeli media reported last night that Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Shaul Mofaz, his Defence Minister, had agreed that Israel would have to take strong action - which could include fresh incursions by the Army - unless the Palestinian Authority curbed the attacks.

In Gaza a Hamas spokesman, Mushir al-Masri, claimed the airstrike was the latest in a "series of Israeli escalations". He was careful not to suggest the ceasefire was at an end.

Israeli security sources claimed Hamas started the clashes as part of its dispute with Fatah - which dominates the Palestinian Authority - over election results in southern Gaza.

The Palestinian Interior Ministry said that after police moved in at nightfall Hamas militants used civilians as shields, and eight officers were hurt by rocks. A ministry statement declared: "This cannot be accepted and this serious violation will not pass [unanswered]." Hamas denied opening fire at the police.

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