Israelis kill two after Hamas 'agrees to stop suicide attacks'

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Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups have agreed to stop suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis in a three-month ceasefire, unconfirmed reports said yesterday. But senior figures inside Hamas denied it, and shortly after the ceasefire reports emerged Israeli helicopters fired rockets into two cars in the southern Gaza Strip in an attack on militants that could wreck any agreement.

Two people were killed in the strike, near the town of Khan Younis, one of them a woman. The target appeared to be Mohammed Sayem, a Hamas militant, who survived but was wounded and had to have his leg amputated. Palestinian security sources said Mr Sayem was on Israel's wanted list. He was in one car and the two people killed were in the other, a taxi.

Israel, which has been under intense pressure from the United States to halt assassinations, claimed it had fired on a group of Hamas militants who were about to fire rockets at an Israeli target, a settlement or a military base, inside the Gaza Strip.

Shortly before, Kadoura Fades, a senior official in the ruling Palestinian party Fatah, told reporters that the leading militant groups including Hamas had agreed to a three-month ceasefire. The Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu Mazen, has been trying to persuade Hamas and other militants to agree to a truce so he can end militant violence, under the road-map peace plan backed by US President George Bush.

The timing of yesterday's rocket attack, immediately after the ceasefire reports emerged, will raise concerns. Mr Fades said, in the ceasefire document signed by militant leaders, they demand that Israel stops its assassinations of militants, and military incursions into Palestinian towns, and call for Palestinian prisoners to be released.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has been repeatedly accused of timing assassinations to prevent Palestinian militants agreeing to ceasefires. In a poll for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, 40 per cent of Israelis said they believed Mr Sharon ordered the attempted assassination of Abd al-Aziz Rantisi two weeks ago, in a deliberate attempt to delay the road-map. Hamas retaliated for that attempt with a suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed 17 people.

There were conflicting signals from Hamas yesterday. Mr Rantisi said the ceasefire deal was not final. "In the coming days we will have an answer," he said, adding in an apparent reference to the helicopter attack: "Israeli terrorist actions will be taken into account when we decide." But another Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, dismissed the reports of an agreement. "This is all lies," he said.

There are believed to be divisions within Hamas. Mr Fares said the deal had been clinched by Marwan Barghouti, a senior figure in Fatah being tried by an Israeli court on charges of involvement in militant attacks who sent messages to militant leaders from his prison cell.

The final deal was signed by Khaled Mashal, a Hamas leader based in Syria, and Ramadan Shalah, the leader of the smaller Islamic Jihad group, who is also in Syria. Mohammed al-Hindi, the senior Islamic Jihad leader in the Gaza Strip, said there was a deal, and arrangements were being made for a formal announcement.

Mr Barghouti signed for Fatah. A third militant group, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, has strong links with Fatah and it is believed Mr Barghouti's signature means most cells of the Al-Aqsa Brigades will honour the ceasefire.

But Israel dismissed the ceasefire, saying it was an "internal arrangement" for the Palestinians, and reiterated its demand that Palestinian security forces crack down on Hamas and the other militants and disarm them.