Three Palestinians die after militiaman's funeral

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The Independent Online

Three Palestinians died today in gun battles which erupted shortly after a militia commander killed by an Israeli helicopter attack was buried in Bethlehem.

Three Palestinians died today in gun battles which erupted shortly after a militia commander killed by an Israeli helicopter attack was buried in Bethlehem.

They were killed in separate clashes following the burial of Hussein Abayat, a regional commander of the Tanzim militia, which is affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah party.

The three - including a boy aged 14 - died in clashes in the West Bank town of Jenin and at the Erez and Karni crossings between Gaza and Israel. An israeli soldier was also critically wounded.

More than 180 people, most Palestinians, have been killed since fighting broke out on September 28.

In Jerusalem, a small bomb went off just outside the walled Old City, slightly injuring a policeman, one of thousands deployed to prevent friction after noon prayers at a main flashpoint, the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, the third holiest shrine of Islam. Police banned Muslim men under the age of 45 from entering the mosque compound to discourage protests. Worshippers dispersed without incident.

The assassination of Abayat marked a new stage in Israeli retaliation, said Prime Minister Ehud Barak. "We will continue with such operations," Barak said during a visit to the army's West Bank headquarters. "We will hit those who hit us."

Abayat was killed yesterday when a missile from an Israeli helicopter struck his car. Israel claimed Abayat planned attacks that resulted in the deaths of three Israeli soldiers.

Thousands joined Abayat's funeral procession in the Bethlehem area. After the burial, gunmen opened fire on Rachel's Tomb, an Israeli enclave in Bethlehem, critically wounding an Israeli soldier. Israeli troops returned fire, and helicopter gunships hovered above the scene.

Israel had not targeted Palestinian leaders prior to its attack on Abayat.

Near the West Bank town of Ramallah, gunmen leading hundreds of rock-throwers traded fire with Israeli troops. Witnesses said Israeli tanks fired shells at an abandoned building from which Palestinians were shooting.

Israeli troops later clamped a closure on Bethlehem and Ramallah, meaning Palestinians were barred from entering or leaving the cities.

Abayat, 37, a father of seven children, took a CIA intelligence course in the United States several months ago, according to Palestinians. The US embassy here would not comment.

Church bells rang in Bethlehem's Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity, marking the traditional birthplace of Jesus, before the funeral of Abayat, a Muslim who lived in nearby Beit Sahour.

A leaflet circulating in Bethlehem after his death singled out Israel's army chief, Lt Gen Shaul Mofaz, for retaliation.

In a meeting late yesterday, the Israeli Cabinet discussed possible repercussions of the raid. In the past, such Israeli strikes have often led to more intense violence, rather than quelling it.

The 1996 assassination of an Islamic militant bombmaker, widely attributed to Israel, triggered a series of suicide bombings that killed scores of Israelis. However, there was little criticism in Israel of the Abayat killing.

The helicopter attack came on the day US President Bill Clinton launched his latest attempt to salvage Middle East peace negotiations, meeting with Arafat in Washington.

Arafat, who said after the meeting that he had reaffirmed his commitment to peace, slammed Israel over the bloodshed, saying: "I am not the one initiated the violence. I am not the one who is attacking Israelis."

Clinton plans to meet with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Sunday, probably his final effort to salvage a peace process he had cultivated so carefully for seven years.

Barak said it would be "a little too far-fetched" to expect the talks with Clinton to result in a resumption of negotiations. First, he said, there must be a substantial reduction in the violence.

The White House was clearly unhappy with the new escalation in violence. Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, declined to discuss the specifics of the Israeli attack, but said: "Violence breeds violence and we must find a way to break this cycle. It's important for people on both sides to do all they can to try to achieve that."

A newspaper poll showed two-thirds of Israelis favour continuation of the peace talks, but if no agreement is reached, 58 percent prefer unilateral separation from the Palestinians instead of another interim accord, favoured by 30 percent. The Gallup poll in the Maariv daily questioned 570 Israeli adults and quoted a 4.5 percent margin of error.