Palestinians kill three Israelis in West Bank

The gunmen escaped towards Bethlehem after opening fire on a crowded hitch-hiking stand at the Gush Etzion junction, which serves a cluster of Jewish settlements. The army imposed a curfew on Bethlehem and began a search operation. Another Israeli was wounded in a shooting near the northern West Bank settlement of Eli. They were the first such attacks since Israel completed its evacuation of the Gaza Strip six weeks ago.

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, affiliated to Mahmoud Abbas's ruling Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the Gush Etzion shooting. Israeli commentators speculated that local warlords were flexing their muscles before primaries for January's Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Mr Abbas is flying to Washington this week for talks with President George Bush and senior administration officials. Yesterday's attacks are expected to increase American pressure for him to assert control over the increasingly anarchic streets and refugee camps. The Palestinian interior ministry reported last week that more Palestinians had been killed by fellow Palestinians this year than by Israel.

Israeli troops hunting West Bakn militants yesterday killed Nihad Abu Ghanim, 27, an Islamic Jihad commander in the Jenin area. The capture was also announced of Haytham Battat, 21, a Hamas operative suspected of plotting bus bomb attacks.

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