Sarkozys flee Israel after guard shoots himself at airport

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The Independent Online

The ceremonial departure from Israel of the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his wife, Carla, was overshadowed yesterday when a police officer shot and killed himself at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv.

Before the reason for the single gunshot became clear, security guards ushered M. Sarkozy and his wife on to the stairway to the aircraft. Whether in a panic or not, Mme Bruni-Sarkozy, who had been chatting seconds earlier with the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, rushed up the stairs ahead of her husband.

After the incident, which took place while a military band was playing, and at least 100 metres away from where the presidential couple were standing, security guards, guns drawn, hustled President Peres and the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, to their cars.

The police officer's death was a suspected and – so far – unexplained suicide. The area police commander, Nissim Mor, said an investigation would decide "whether it was suicide or if he accidentally discharged his weapon". He added: "His mission was to secure an area to prevent people from reaching the ceremony."

M. Sarkozy, whose 60th anniversary visit to Israel was partly to enhance the historically uneven Franco-Israeli relationship, had reinforced his message that Jerusalem would have to be shared as a Palestinian and Israeli capital if there was to be an end to the conflict.

The French President also said, while in Bethlehem, where he met the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, that Israel's separation barrier, which the military says is to keep out suicide bombers but which in places cuts deep into the occupied West Bank, will not bring it any closer to peace.

On Monday, however, President Sarkozy also pledged solidarity with Israel's concerns over a nuclear Iran and promised tightening international pressure on Tehran.

The visit ended as the six-day-old ceasefire in Gaza came under its most serious strain yet. Militants fired three Qassam rockets into Israel in response to the killing of two Palestinians, including a prominent Islamic Jihad fighter, in the West Bank city of Nablus earlier in the day.

A spokesman for Mr Olmert said the rocket attacks on the Sderot area were a "clear and grave violation" of the terms of the truce brokered by Egypt. Two Israelis were treated for temporary hearing loss after one missile strike.

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the launches, which it said was a "first response" to the killings in Nablus. But a spokesman for Hamas, which controls Gaza, urged "all Palestinian factions to abide by the calm agreement", adding: "Hamas is keen to maintain the deal."