Israeli police kill Palestinian stone throwers

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The Independent Online

Four Palestinians have been killed and at least 96 injured after Israeli police fired plastic bullets to disperse stone throwing youths at a Jerusalem holy site.

Four Palestinians have been killed and at least 96 injured after Israeli police fired plastic bullets to disperse stone throwing youths at a Jerusalem holy site.

In the bloodiest clash in four years at the Al Aqsa mosque, police broke into a sacred walled compound after Muslim prayers.

Dozens of police were hurt by rocks, including the Jerusalem police chief.

In a separate incident, an Israeli policeman was killed and a second wounded when a Palestinian officer opened fire on Israeli colleagues with whom he was patrolling the West Bank town of Qalqiliya.

The gunman was arrested by Palestinian police and is expected to stand trial within days.

The Al Aqsa shrine is revered by Muslims.

A dispute over who will control the compound has blocked progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The violence began after Muslim noon prayers in the compound, home to two major mosques.

As thousands of worshippers emerged from the mosques, some began throwing stones at Israeli troops who were posted at gates and on the compound's walls.

At first, police stayed back, huddling behind tall plastic shields and firing rounds of rubber bullets from the gates as a barrage of stones descended on them.

At one point, they charged forward, some wielding clubs, to push back the crowds. In the mayhem, Palestinian protesters hit by rubber bullets fell to the ground and were carried away by their friends.

One young man was unconscious, his forehead bloodied. Others held their stomachs in pain

Shouts of "Allahu Akbar," or God is great, rose from the compound.

Four Palestinians were killed, according to doctors at Mukassed Hospital in traditionally Arab east Jerusalem.

Hospital director Khaled Qureia said one man was dead on arrival and two died on the operating table. Mukassed treated 66 Palestinians for rubber bullet injuries, including six in serious condition, Qureia said.

At nearby Augusta Victoria, 30 Palestinians were treated for rubber bullet injuries. Two were in critical condition, hospital officials said.

Tensions have been running high since Israel's hawkish opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, toured the compound to show that Israel is in control.

The Palestinians blamed Sharon for the violence.

"The clashes are a continuation of the fire of the religious war which was ignited by Sharon's visit yesterday," said Nabil Aburdeneh, an adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The compound is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, site of their former biblical Temple, Judaism's holiest shrine, and to Muslims as Haram as-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, Islam's third holiest shrine and home to two major mosques that mark the spot where tradition says Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

As the clashes raged, but before the extent of the injuries became known, Sharon appeared on Cable News Network and defended his visit to the holy shrine.

"The state of Israel cannot afford that an Israeli citizen will not be able to visit part of his country, not to speak about the holiest place for the Jewish people all around the world," Sharon said.

In today's clashes, police also ordered Jewish worshippers away from the nearby Western Wall, which was crowded close to the onset of the Jewish Sabbath and the Jewish New Year, which starts at sundown

The Wall is a remnant of the Jewish Temple. The violence came at a time of increased tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, and at a time of deadlock in peace treaty talks.

The latest cycle of violence began on Wednesday night when assailants believed to be Islamic militants set off roadside bombs near an Israeli army convoy en route to the isolated Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip. An Israeli soldier was killed and a second injured in the bomb attack.

Yesterday morning, Sharon toured the Temple Mount, accompanied by hundreds of riot police. The visit, intended to demonstrate that Israel controls the holy site, infuriated Palestinians and sparked clashes that left dozens of police and stone throwers injured.

The attacks on Israeli soldiers caused an Israeli Cabinet minister to warn the violence was threatening the peace process. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are hung up because of rival claims to sovereignty over the Jerusalem holy shrine. Both sides have said they would not grant the other sole control. U.S. mediators have floated compromise ideas, but none has been accepted by both Israel and the Palestinians.