Palestinian gunman kills three Israelis as Sharon heads for Washington

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A Palestinian gunman dressed as an Israeli soldier killed three Israelis at a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, hours before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was to meet US President George W. Bush at the White House.

Residents and the Israeli military said the gunman infiltrated the settlement of Hamra in the Jordan River Valley – part of the West Bank – took over a house on Wednesday evening and killed a woman and her daughter. Israeli soldiers stormed the house, killing the gunman, who had an M­16 assault rifle and a grenade, the army said.

An Israeli soldier, shot shortly after the gunman entered the settlement, died of his wounds at a Jerusalem hospital, the army told radios.

At least four people were wounded, including a child and two soldiers, Israel Radio reported. After initial reports that two gunmen had infiltrated the settlement, soldiers closed off the area and carried out intensive searches, but concluded early today that the gunman was alone.

Yitzhak Orenstein, a security guard at the village on a road between the Adam Bridge over the Jordan River and Nablus, said residents were confined to their houses during the attack. The gunman shot and killed a soldier in Orenstein's patrol truck before a heavy exchange of fire broke out. Then the gunman entered a nearby home where the woman and her daughter were hiding.

"He saw a house with lights on," Orenstein told Israel Radio. "He knocked on the door and they opened the door for him since he was dressed in a soldier's uniform. And then they were hit."

Minutes later a soldier shot the gunman through a window in the home.

In a statement broadcast by a Lebanese TV station, the militant Hamas took responsibility.

Israel hit back early on Thursday. Witnesses said an Israeli warplane fired two missiles at a Palestinian prison and government complex in Nablus. Eleven people were injured, none seriously. The Israeli military said the air strike was retaliation for the Hamra attack.

Palestinian security officials said that several Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners at the Nablus jail – some of them senior militants wanted by Israel – were released by guards just prior to the Israeli airstrike. Guards at an apartment in nearby Jenin also released seven activists of the two groups, the officials said on condition of anonymity.

A few hours earlier, police and civilians foiled an apparent suicide bombing just outside Jerusalem. A bus driver alerted police to a suspicious passenger. Police and bystanders overpowered him and discovered he was wearing a belt with explosives, standard fare for a suicide bomber.

The would­be bomber, identified in media reports as a 22­year­old from Nablus, was taken away by police for interrogation. Police blew up his explosives­laden belt in a huge ball of fire and smoke a safe distance from the road an hour later.

The incidents of violence came as Sharon flew to the United States for a meeting today with Bush, his fourth in the past year. Sharon cut short a trip to Washington on 2 December when Palestinian suicide bombers struck in Haifa and Jerusalem, killing themselves and 25 other people.