Israeli troops kill Palestinian militants in raid on Ramallah

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The Independent Online

Israeli undercover troops, backed by helicopters, armoured cars and bulldozers, killed four Palestinians and wounded 25 others in a gun battle in Ramallah. One Israeli soldier was wounded.

Yesterday's clash in the West Bank administrative capital came as Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, flew to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for talks with the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, in an attempt to revive the stagnant Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The summit ended inconclusively.

At a joint press conference, Mr Olmert apologised if innocent civilians were killed or wounded in Ramallah. He said that was not Israel's intention, but that it had to continue pursuing those who wanted to harm its citizens.

Two Israeli television stations reported last night that Mr Olmert was preparing to remove Amir Peretz as Defence minister and offer him another senior post. If he did not go quietly, the reports said, Mr Olmert would dismiss him. Mr Peretz, a former trade union boss, has been widely criticised for his handling of last summer's Lebanon war.

Mr Olmert felt free to move after parliament passed the 2007 state budget earlier this week. Mr Peretz's leadership of the Labour Party has been weakened by disenchantment over Israel's failure to win an outright victory over Hizbollah, but Mr Olmert will try to finesse things so that his biggest partner does not leave the ruling coalition.

An army spokesman said yesterday that the raiding force entered Ramallah to arrest wanted militants. They were greeted by a hail of stones from bystanders, followed by automatic fire that quickly developed into heavy exchanges. The Israelis said their helicopters raked an open space with "deterrent fire," though Palestinians claimed they also hit a building.

Arab television news footage showed bulldozers and armoured vehicles shunting aside parked cars near the city-centre Manara Square while dozens of civilians fled for their lives. Troops were also seen firing teargas. It was the biggest raid on Ramallah in six months. The Israelis captured four wanted men before withdrawing.

An Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire, agreed in late November, covered the Gaza Strip, but has not been extended to the West Bank. Israel has continued daily arrest operations there, but has refrained so far from retaliating for the persistent launching of Qassam rockets from Gaza into southern Israel.

In northern Gaza yesterday, a Hamas security man was shot dead and two other people were wounded in fire fights between Fatah forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas and supporters of the Islamist government. On the West Bank, Fatah kidnapped the Hamas deputy Health minister, Bashar Karmi, in El Bireh and torched the car of another Hamas politician.

Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas Prime Minister, called for an end to the fighting. "These clashes must stop," he insisted on his return to Gaza from Mecca.