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Israeli troops raid two West Bank towns
( 2003-08-21 13:49) (Agencies)

Israeli troops and tanks moved into the West Bank towns of Nablus and Jenin early Thursday, searching for Palestinian militants in the wake of a devastating suicide bombing earlier in the week, police and Palestinian officials said.

Israeli army tanks line up in the outskirts of the West Bank town of Ramallah Wednesday Aug. 20, 2003. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon approved a series of pinpointed military strikes, some of which could begin Wednesday evening after a suicide bomber killed 20 people and injured scores in downtown Jerusalem Tuesday. [AP]
In Hebron, Israeli troops used explosives to demolish the home of the bomber in Tuesday's suicide attack on a Jerusalem bus, which killed 20 and injured more than 100. The family had moved out, expecting the home would be demolished. Israel regularly destroys the home of suicide attackers, hoping it will be a deterrent.

The bomber, 29-year-old mosque preacher Raed Mesk, was friends with an Islamic Jihad leader in Hebron, Mohammed Sidr, who was killed by Israeli troops last week.

Israeli soldiers stand next to tanks being transported on trucks as they gather in the outskirts of the West Bank town of Ramallah Wednesday Aug. 20, 2003.   [AP]
In Jenin, shots rang out after some 20 tanks, personnel carriers and other vehicles entered, witnesses said, but there were no immediate reports of casualties in either town. A curfew was imposed in central Nablus after more than 30 vehicles mostly trucks and a few tanks entered the town.

Troops were also searching for bomb laboratories, an Israeli military source said on condition of anonymity. No arrests were made in the latest raids, though on Wednesday night six wanted Palestinians were arrested in the area of Jenin, the source said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has approved a series of "pinpoint" military strikes in response to Tuesday's suicide bombing.

In response, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday ordered the arrests of suspects directly involved in the Hamas bombing, but said said he would not clamp down on militant groups without Arafat's backing, Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr said.

A meeting between Abbas, Arafat and other top Palestinians to discuss how best to respond to the suicide attack stretched into the early hours Thursday. Participants said the talks were tense and erupted in yelling.

Five Americans were among those killed in Tuesday's attack on a Jerusalem bus, the U.S. Embassy said. The bus bombing Tuesday was the deadliest attack since President Bush (news - web sites) unveiled his "road map" peace plan in May, and the tragedy was magnified by the fact that six children, ranging in age from 3 months to 15 years, were among the dead.

Also during the Israeli action early Thursday, troops demolished the home of a suicide bomber in a village just outside Jenin. The bomber had blown himself up last month, killing one Israeli woman. The army regularly destroys the homes of suicide bombers in an effort to dissuade others from attacks.

As part of the current U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, Israeli soldiers pulled out of parts of the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem in the West Bank in July. The plan requires a gradual Israeli withdrawal to positions held before the outbreak of fighting, and a Palestinian crackdown on militants.

In other Israeli-Palestinians violence, Israeli troops shot and killed one Palestinian 16-year-old and wounded at least five others Wednesday night in the northern West Bank town of Tulkarem, Palestinian witnesses said. An Israeli military source said the troops came under fire while seeking to arrest wanted Palestinians and fired back. Palestinian witnesses, however, said the teenager was unarmed. The troops later left.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell called Abbas and told him he expected "immediate measures to stop the deterioration," Amr said. It was not clear whether Powell issued an ultimatum.

The issue was the focus of the Palestinian meeting in Ramallah. Cabinet ministers and PLO officials joined Arafat and Abbas at the talks in Ramallah, while a column of 13 Israeli tanks was seen lining up outside the West Bank town, where Arafat's headquarters is located.

However, the tanks did not move in, and Israeli security officials indicated Arafat's compound would not be targeted, as it was in previous raids.

A statement issued after the meeting included pledges of moving ahead with commitments under the peace plan, which calls for the Palestinians to dismantle violent groups. The declaration spelled out few specifics but said the Palestinian Authority was committed to the "control of weapons" and would ban all public demonstrations by militant groups.

Sharon convened his Security Cabinet Wednesday night, and his office issued a statement warning the Palestinian Authority that if it "does not take all the necessary steps in the war against terror, real and substantial steps, it will not be possible to advance on the diplomatic track."

Palestinian officials were expected to hold further talks Thursday.

Some participants in the closed-door talks between Arafat, Cabinet ministers and PLO officials said on condition of anonymity that Abbas suggested strong action, such as freezing militant groups' bank accounts and outlawing the military wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

However, Palestinian officials said Arafat was concerned that an overly tough crackdown could spark civil war. Sources inside the talks said leaders shouted at times.

Arafat, who has been accused by Israel of involvement in terror, continues to control several of the security branches. He has repeatedly criticized Abbas, saying his agreements with Israel amount to very little.

Palestinian security forces ordered the owners of three satellite uplink facilities to prevent Islamic Jihad or Hamas from giving media interviews, a Palestinian security source said.

Abbas' security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, arrived at the Cabinet meeting with a bulletproof vest under his blazer, the first time he was seen wearing such protection. It appeared to be an indication of growing tensions among Palestinians.

Abbas until now has shied away from confrontation with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, fearing it will spark violence between Palestinians. Instead he has tried to persuade them to halt attacks on Israelis. His decision on whether to change course could determine the fate of the "road map" plan.

Israel warned Wednesday it will resume a relentless hunt for terror suspects if Abbas does not take action, and new Israeli sweeps could trigger more Palestinian attacks. "Either they fight terror, or we do it, without compromise," said Israel's vice premier, Ehud Olmert.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, along with Arafat's Fatah, had declared a unilateral cease-fire on June 29, but then changed the terms, saying they would avenge killings of Palestinians by Israeli troops. Before Tuesday's attacks, Hamas and Fatah renegades carried out bombings, killing two Israelis.

The Jerusalem bombing came in revenge for the killing last week of an Islamic Jihad leader, Mohammed Sidr, in an army raid in the West Bank city of Hebron. The bomber was a 29-year-old mosque preacher from Hamas and a friend of Sidr's.

The bomber struck as a bus crowded with Jewish worshippers, including many families with children, made its way from the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest shrine, to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem.

The 100th suicide bombing during nearly three years of fighting was especially horrific because the packed bus carried many large families with children. Ambulances whisked away the wounded, separating children and parents.

 
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