Killing continues as US peace envoy arrives

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The Independent Online

Israeli tanks and troops moved deeper into two Palestinian towns today, killing four Palestinians in street battles. In the Gaza Strip, three Israeli soldiers were killed when a powerful explosion went off near their Merkava–3 tank.

In Bethlehem, Palestinian militiamen shot dead two suspected informers, tied one of the bodies to a pickup truck, dragged it through the streets and tried to hang it from a building on Manger Square, overlooking the Church of the Nativity. Palestinian police arrived and prevented the hanging.

The US envoy Anthony Zinni arrives later today Israeli and Palestinian officials said they were ready to work with him on a truce. However, each side said it would continue fighting if the other did not end the violence. The Palestinians demanded that Israel withdraw its troops from Palestinian towns, while Israel said Palestinian militants must stop attacks on Israelis.

"If there will be terrorist actions like the one we had this morning, we will continue to defend ourselves," said Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, referring to the deadly attack on Israeli soldiers in Gaza.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said Palestinians would not hold truce talks with Israelis "without a comprehensive Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities and refugee camps."

The streets of Ramallah, the Palestinians' administrative and commercial centre, were deserted today as Israeli tanks enforced a curfew. Shops were closed, and only the door of a pharmacy was open a crack.

Dozens of armoured vehicles surrounded the Al Amari refugee camp next to Ramallah and witnesses said tanks blocked the access roads to several hospitals in town, allowing only ambulances to get through.

Roving bands of Palestinian gunmen exchanged sporadic fire with Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, and four members of the Palestinian security forces were killed.

The Israeli army commander in the area, Colonel Yair Golan, said the reoccupation of Ramallah had not only military, but also political objectives.

"When we set out on the mission we had two central targets. One aim was to hit the terrorist infrastructure. The other was ... to let the Palestinian Authority know it's moving toward the brink," he said

Israeli tanks were stationed about 100 yards from Mr Arafat's compound , even though earlier in the week, Mr Sharon had eased a travel ban and said he was releasing the Palestinian leader from his three–month confinement in Ramallah.

Israeli tanks also drove into Bethlehem from all directions around 1am and took control of a southern residential section of the city. Residents said soldiers were searching houses and taking up positions in buildings.

Tanks were parked 300 yards from the Church of the Nativity, which Christians revere as the birthplace of Christ.

In one gun battle, an Israeli tank shell hit the Holy Family Church, which is part of a compound that also houses a hospital and an orphanage, said Sister Sophie, the nun in charge of the complex.

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