Three Israeli troops killed in shootout, top Hamas fugitive in Palestinian custody

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The Independent Online

An Israeli army raid in the West Bank village of Assira Ashmalia led to a fierce shootout that left three soldiers dead. An an Islamic militant who topped Israel's most-wanted list was in Palestinian custody.

An Israeli army raid in the West Bank village of Assira Ashmalia led to a fierce shootout that left three soldiers dead. An an Islamic militant who topped Israel's most-wanted list was in Palestinian custody.

One Israeli soldier was also injured in the firefight late Saturday, apparently from friendly fire, the army said.

It was the first time in more than a year and a half that Israeli troops have been killed in the West Bank. A soldier was killed in January 1999.

Military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the troops were looking for the fugitive, Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, when they raided the village Saturday night.

Abu Hanoud has been linked to two suicide bombings in Israel in 1997, in which at least 26 people were killed, 21 of them Israelis. Israel blames him for recruiting the attackers, also residents of Assira Ashamalieh, his home village. He is considered a leader of the militant group Hamas' military wing.

He was treated for gunshot wounds at the Evangelical Hospital in the Palestinian-controlled town of Nablus and was in good condition after escaping from a home raided by Israeli troops, Palestinian security sources said. He was placed under heavy guard, with dozens of officers patrolling the hospital grounds and others watching the area from nearby rooftops.

The incident began at about 10 p.m. (1900 gmt) Saturday when hundreds of Israeli soldiers entered Assira Ashmalia, known as a Hamas stronghold.

The soldiers sealed off the village, imposed a curfew and conducted house-to-house searches. At one point, Abu Hanoud and another man, Nidal Daglas, fired at the troops from outside Daglas' home, said the top army commander in the West Bank, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan.

Soldiers returned fire, and in the ensuing gunbattle surrounding the home, three soldiers were killed and one wounded. Abu Hanoud and Daglas were also struck by bullets, and Abu Hanoud escaped. He later gave himself up and requested medical care.

For several hours after the gunbattle, army helicopters flew over homes and surrounding fields, training bright spotlights on the ground in search for Abu Hanoud. Villagers said dozens of people were arrested.

Assira Ashamalieh is under joint Israeli-Palestinian control, while Nablus is under full Palestinian jurisdiction, meaning Israeli troops are barred from entering the city.

Israel's police minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, who is also acting foreign minister, would not say whether Israel would ask for Abu Hanoud's extradition.

Ben-Ami praised the security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority. "The important thing here ... are the real efforts of the Palestinian Authority in the fight against terror," he told Israel army radio.

Kanaan Jamal, 32, a villager, spent the night on a rocky hillside overlooking the village, locked out by the curfew. He said many of the residents support Hamas and Abu Hanoud.

"Even if we don't know him personally, he is one of us," Jamal said, adding that much of the sympathy was generated by harsh Israeli measures over the years such as curfews, raids and roadblocks.

Hours after the gunbattle, an army bulldozer razed Daglas' home. His relationship with the fugitive was not immediately clear. Israel radio said four tons of chemicals used in the production of explosives had been found in his home weeks ago.

The incident came at a delicate point in Israel-Palestinian peacemaking, with both sides saying it is unlikely they will meet a Sept. 13 deadline for a peace treaty, and the Palestinians considering whether to unilaterally declare an independent state.

Hamas opposes the peace negotiations, and Abu Hanoud's arrest was seen as a blow to its military wing, which has carried out a series of suicide attacks in hopes of sabotaging the peace process.

In May, the top fugitive in the Gaza Strip, Mohammed Deif, was captured by Palestinian security forces.