Seven killed as Israeli forces go into Hebron

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The Independent Online

Israeli forces pushed into the West Bank city of Hebron today, killing seven Palestinians, just hours after Israel's Cabinet reluctantly agreed to a US proposal to release Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from his month–long confinement.

At another flashpoint, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a Palestinian militiaman was killed by Israeli sniper fire when he walked into a courtyard, the army said. The military initially said the gunman fired first, but later withdrew that report. The church has been under Israeli siege for a month, with more than 200 armed Palestinians holed up inside.

Israeli forces entered the West Bank city of Hebron with tanks and armoured personnel carriers driving in from all directions.

Seven Palestinians, including six civilians, were killed by Israeli fire, Palestinian witnesses said. In the bloodiest incident, a missile fired from an Israeli helicopter hit a house, killing a gunman and four civilians. Two more civilians who rushed to the scene to try to help were killed by helicopter fire, witnesses said.

Troops arrested several suspected militants, including three leading members of the Islamic militant Hamas group, and found suitcases filled with explosives in two apartments, said the army spokesman, Brigadier General Ron Kitrey.

The incursion came in apparent retaliation for a weekend attack on the nearby Jewish settlement of Adora, in which four Israelis, including a 5–year–old girl, were killed. Hamas claimed responsibility for that attack.

Mr Arafat's confinement appeared to be drawing to a close, after Israel agreed to a US plan for six wanted men inside the compound – the four killers of Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Zeevi, the leader of their political faction and an Arafat aide suspected of arms smuggling – to ber handed over to British and US 'warders'.

The six men will be moved from Mr Arafat's besieged compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah to Jericho within the next day or two, said Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.

As soon as the six have left Mr Arafat's headquarters, the Palestinian leader will be free to move, Abed Rabbo told The Associated Press.

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