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Dozens of tanks roll into Gaza
( 2003-10-10 10:51) (Agencies)

Israel sent dozens of tanks into a Gaza refugee camp early Friday to destroy tunnels allegedly used by Palestinians to smuggle weapons. Military officials said they acted on warnings that militants were trying to acquire anti-aircraft missiles.

The incursion followed a day of political uncertainty and sporadic violence. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia suffered a severe blow when legislators failed to vote on his Cabinet, casting doubt on his plan to reach a truce with Israel. And a Palestinian suicide bomber struck an Israeli liaison office, injuring two soldiers and a Palestinian.

In Gaza, witnesses said tanks and other armored vehicles entered the Rafah refugee camp from two directions. They were joined by special forces, including engineering units with dogs trained to uncover tunnels. A gun battle erupted between soldiers and Palestinian gunmen, but there was no report of casualties.

Residents said the Israelis destroyed three houses near the border and fired machine guns to drive families away from others. Explosions could be heard, possibly Israelis destroying tunnels, or militants throwing explosives at tanks, they said.

A military commander at the scene said that weapons smuggled in from Egypt to Gaza eventually make their way to the West Bank, so "we had no choice but to strike deep against the tunnels."

The raid was the biggest in recent months. Israel had mounted dozens of smaller missions in the past weeks aimed at uncovering and destroying the tunnels, turning the Rafah refugee camp into a constant battlefield.

Friday's raid came just two days after the military ordered 800 active-duty soldiers to the West Bank and Gaza, canceling leaves and training courses, and ordered the continuation of a strict lockdown on Palestinian areas, reportedly at least through Oct. 22.

Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel had intelligence warnings that Palestinians were planning to use tunnels under the border to smuggle in weapons that could have a strategic impact on the three-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the Egyptians were not taking steps to stop them.

The sources said Palestinians were attempting to acquire missiles that could knock out tanks and aircraft, weapons they have not used up to now. These would include Stinger shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missiles that could shoot down the attack helicopters Israel often uses in operations in Gaza, the sources said. Stinger missiles could also threaten Israeli warplanes or civilian aircraft flying close to Gaza.

Also, the sources said, the Palestinians were trying to smuggle Katyusha rockets, which would have the range to hit Israeli cities near Gaza. During the conflict, the Palestinians have been aiming homemade mortars and rockets at Israeli towns and settlements.

Aides said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat received reports about the Rafah incursion and went to bed at 2:30 a.m. Friday. They again denied rumors that he was seriously ill.

Earlier, at Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, in a heated closed-door meeting, Qureia suggested he no longer wanted to be prime minister, just four days after taking office, officials said. Arafat's spokesman said there were "serious differences" but denied Qureia had offered to resigned.

Qureia's success is key to efforts to salvage the stalled U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which outlines a path to ending three years of conflict and a Palestinian state by 2005.

Qureia has pledged to work to halt the violence, but Thursday's public embarrassment seemed to bode ill for his chances of survival.

As dozens of Palestinian legislators and hundreds of officials waited for nearly an hour and a half for the expected vote on Qureia's Cabinet, backdoor wrangling continued among members of Arafat's Fatah faction about the size and the makeup of the government.

Unable to agree on whether to confirm the eight-person emergency Cabinet appointed by Arafat on Sunday, the officials abruptly canceled the vote.

"Everyone has his own script and so we feel that we need more time. We are sorry for troubling you," Deputy Parliament Speaker Abraham Abu Najar told the waiting legislators.

The vote was tentatively rescheduled for Saturday. Until then, the Cabinet remains a temporary one that officials say can rule for a month only.

Some legislators objected to the very idea of legitimizing the emergency Cabinet, which was appointed without consultation and some even insisted there was no provision in the law for a government being appointed by decree. Others favored confirming the Cabinet with a vote in the parliament but voiced objections to its small size.

"If this government were presented ... today it would have failed," said Salah Taamri, a Fatah legislator.

During the meeting with Arafat and the Fatah leadership, an exasperated Qureia told the Palestinian leader, "Just relieve me of this job," according to officials who were present. That sparked speculation he might have resigned, which Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh denied.

"There are serious differences, but it did not reach the point of resignation," Abu Rdeneh told reporters outside Arafat's Ramallah headquarters.

Violence continued Thursday in the West Bank when, a suicide bomber detonated explosives at an Israeli army base, killing himself and injuring two Israeli soldiers and a Palestinian.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack and identified the bomber as Ahmed Safadi, an 18-year-old high school student from the village of Oref south of Nablus.

The bomber walked up to an office at an Israeli army base near the West Bank town of Tulkarem where Palestinians apply for humanitarian permits to cross roadblocks and blew himself up, the army said.

The bombing came after Israel had ordered a special call-up Thursday of four reserve battalions to patrol the West Bank and Gaza.

 
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