Palestinian gunmen go on rampage as US peace effort starts

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The Independent Online

Palestinian gunmen on a suicide mission opened fire in a bustling Israeli town yesterday, killing two Israelis only hours after American mediators had begun their first full day of work in an effort to secure a Middle East ceasefire.

Palestinian gunmen on a suicide mission opened fire in a bustling Israeli town yesterday, killing two Israelis only hours after American mediators had begun their first full day of work in an effort to secure a Middle East ceasefire.

Two guerrillas in civilian clothes began indiscriminately firing Kalashnikovs at the central bus station in Afula, six miles north of Israel's border with the occupied West Bank.

There were scenes of panic as the gunmen shot a woman in the head at a traffic light and then raced through to the nearby open-air market, still firing their guns. Witnesses said one woman tried to attack one of the gunmen from behind, but he turned round and shot her.

A 23-year-old man and a woman of 25 were killed in the rampage. Nine people were severely injured and more than 40 sustained minor injuries.

The guerrillas were eventually cornered and shot dead by Israeli policemen and an army reservist. Police sealed off the centre of the town after the late morning attack, which was the second fatal rampage in Afula by suicidal Palestinian gunmen in less than two months, as they checked the area for other guerrillas.

Responsibility was claimed by the Islamic Jihad group – militant Muslim nationalists – and the Al-Aqsa Brigades, a militia affiliated with the mainstream secular Fatah movement, which is formally led by Yasser Arafat. Reports said it was a joint operation to avenge the killings of Palestinian militants.

The rampage came as Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, was giving a helicopter tour over Israel to the two United States envoys – Anthony Zinni, the retired Marines general, and William Burns, the Assistant US Secretary of State for the Near East, whom President Bush has dispatched to the region to try to secure a ceasefire.

A few moments after the shootings, the envoys flew over the panic-stricken scene.

The attack was seen as a challenge to Mr Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, which this week appealed to the militants not to avenge the death of Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, one of the top military commanders of Hamas, who was assassinated in an Israeli helicopter missile strike on Friday.

The Palestinian authorities had circulated leaflets warning that revenge attacks would play into the hands of Israel, allowing it to accuse the Palestinians of destroying the latest efforts to secure a ceasefire. However, Mr Arafat's power is weakening and many analysts – including some in Israel – have been expecting an attack inside Israel in the aftermath of the Hanoud assassination.

A video released by Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Brigades showed the two gunmen sitting in a room in front of political banners. "We hope our people will continue in the path of holy war," said one, identified as Mustafa Faisal Abu Saria, 21, an Islamic Jihad militant.

The other gunman wasAbed al-Karim Abu Nasa, 20, reportedly a Palestinian policeman and Fatah activist.

Both were from a refugee camp in the Palestinian town of Jenin, 10 miles to the south. They will now be hailed as "martyrs" within Palestinian society. Jenin was one of six West Bank towns invaded by the Israeli armed forces just over a month ago after the assassination of Israel's tourism minister, Rechavam Zeevi, by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who in turn were avenging Israel's assassination of their leader.

The troops had gradually pulled out of five of the six towns in recent weeks, remaining only in Jenin. But the Israeli government pulled its forces out of the town just before dawn yesterday in what they billed as a "gesture of good will" – a move timed to coincide with the arrival of the US envoys. The US has repeatedly called for a withdrawal.

But Israeli tanks and troops remained on Jenin's edge, continuing a military blockade that has been in force throughout most of the occupied territories for months.

Israeli government spokesmen immediately seized on the killings as evidence that Mr Arafat and the Palestinian Authority were failing to stop attacks against Israelis and had no interest in a ceasefire.

Less was said about the violence committed by the Israeli army over the past week, including one 48-hour period in which 12 Palestinians were killed, including five childrenwho died when an Israeli army booby-trap bomb exploded under their feet.

The run-up to the arrival of the US mediators saw another surge in violence in some of the conflict's worst troublespots.

For the first time in weeks, shots were fired by Palestinians in the Arab village of Beit Jala into the Jewish settlement of Gilo, south of Jerusalem. Similar attacks in the past had prompted the Israeli armed forces to take over large parts of Beit Jala and Bethlehem.

In the past week, dozens of mortars have been fired from the Gaza Strip at Israeli settlements, killing one soldier.

Even before the American envoys arrived, no one had expected them to make rapid progress. Yesterday's attack serves as a grim reminder of the difficulties they face.

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