Israelis shoot dead three boys and four gunmen

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The Independent Online

Three Palestinian teenagers and at least four gunmen have been shot dead by Israeli troops in the deadliest day of Middle East fighting in two weeks.

Three Palestinian teenagers and at least four gunmen have been shot dead by Israeli troops in the deadliest day of Middle East fighting in two weeks.

Two Palestinians, one aged 13 and one 17, were killed in rock-throwing clashes in the West Bank town of Ramallah and the village of Salfit. Both were killed by shots to the head.

A 16-year-old stone-thrower was also killed in the town of Qalqiliya.

And Palestinian gunmen hiding behind olive trees attacked an Israeli army checkpoint in the West Bank town of Nablus.

Massive return fire left a reported four gunmen dead and several more injured.

Six Israeli soldiers were also shot - two seriously - by Palestinian police after taking a wrong turning in Tulkarm.

Israeli helicopters are also reported to have fired at Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem.

US President Bill Clinton had hoped that a truce would take hold before the weekend and eventually pave the way for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

But today's gun battles quelled hopes that the three-week-old fighting would end soon. The violence has left 111 people dead, the vast majority Palestinians.

Israel has said its troops have shown great restraint, while the Palestinians have accused Israeli soldiers of using excessive force. In addition to those killed, hundreds of Palestinians have been injured.

Israeli officials made no immediate announcement about whether they would declare the truce a failure. THeir deadline ran out at 2pm GMT.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said that if the Palestinians do not stop the riots, he will see this as a decision by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to halt peace negotiations.

A government spokesman, Avi Pazner, blamed the violence on Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which he said had encouraged rioters in the streets.

"We see that the incidents are getting worse as a direct result of the behavior of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority," Pazner said.

He added he didn't know when the government would take action. He spoke after nightfall today, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath.

Barak did, however, hold an unscheduled meeting with Likud opposition leader Ariel Sharon, who has repeatedly said he would reject participating in an emergency unity government.

Entering the meeting, Barak said he thought the chances now of a unity government were "very good, but it takes two."

"The people need this, the nation needs this," he said.

The commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank, Maj Gen Yitzhak Eitan, said before the deaths that in the event of cease-fire violations, especially by the Tanzim militiamen linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, Israeli soldiers would respond with force.

"If the Palestinians won't stop the Tanzim movement from shooting at our forces, we will not have any choice but to shoot back," he said.

The violence came on the eve of an Arab summit in Cairo, a gathering Arafat has sought as a show of broad support for the Palestinian cause. Israeli officials have accused Arafat of orchestrating the violence to improve his standing in the eyes of Arab leaders leading up to the summit.

At the Mideast emergency summit earlier this week, Israel and the Palestinians had agreed that there would be a two-day transition period leading to a cease-fire.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, scores of Palestinians threw stones from behind makeshift barricades of burned out cars. Groups of rioters overturned the wrecks again and again, using them as cover to approach the Israeli positions.

Thick smoke from burning cars rose into the air, and at one point a Palestinian policeman tried to douse the flames with a hose.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said that if the Palestinians do not stop the riots, he will see this as a decision by Mr Arafat to halt peace negotiations.

In a phone call last night, Mr Barak told Clinton that in that case, Israel will have to "take a time-out and reassess the entire peace process," said a Barak aide Gilead Sher.

Palestinians said that Israel was not keeping the understandings and demanded that Israel withdraw tanks from the outskirts of West Bank cities.

Preventing access to Muslims under the age of 40, Israeli riot police today blocked several alleyways leading to the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

Just inside the walled Old City's Damascus Gate, police swung clubs to keep back a large crowd of worshippers. One policeman charged toward a Palestinian in a white robe and prayer cap who tried to shield himself from a blow.

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