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Israeli troops raid West Bank town,clashes erupt
( 2003-10-22 09:21) (Agencies)

Israeli forces swooped into the West Bank city where Yasser Arafat is based on Tuesday, encircled a mosque and fired weapons and tear gas to disperse hundreds of stone-throwers, witnesses said.

Medical officials said at least 16 people were wounded, one critically, in the raid in Ramallah which lasted about four hours and came shortly after the Palestinian president asked for international help to stop what he called Israel's "military madness."

Arafat made his appeal after Israel killed 10 Palestinians -- most of them civilians, according to medical officials -- and wounded another 100 in five air strikes in Gaza on Monday.

Israel's army, echoing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said there would be no let-up in its hunt for Islamic militants despite the risk of civilian deaths, which drew unusually tough criticism in Israel and opposition calls for an investigation.

On Tuesday evening, Israeli troops and tanks rolled into Ramallah and surrounded its Abdel Nasser mosque shortly after evening prayers, declaring a curfew in the area.

Hundreds of youths came out to throw stones at the soldiers, who responded by firing live ammunition and tear gas, Reuters correspondents at the scene said. Worshippers were later allowed to leave the mosque after being questioned by soldiers.

Israeli military sources denied troops used live fire and described the raid as a swoop for militants waging a three-year-old uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Tensions in Ramallah have run especially high since Israel's security cabinet decided in principle last month to "remove" Arafat for fomenting violence. Arafat denies the charge.

Arafat said world leaders, including a "Quartet" of powers trying to secure a peace agreement, should "immediately intervene to stop this military madness in which they aim to destroy the Holy Land and this steadfast people."

The "Quartet" groups the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. Their efforts to end three years of bloodshed since the Palestinians began their uprising against Israel for statehood have bogged down in tit-for-tat violence.

Washington called on Israel to avoid harming innocents and reiterated its demand on Arafat to rein in militants.

"If the Palestinians would take steps on security...perhaps Israel would not feel the need to act unilaterally in this way in its defense," a State Department spokesman said.


World leaders have criticized Israel's policy of tracking and killing Palestinian militants, primarily through air strikes, while also condemning suicide bombings by militants.

The bloodiest strike on Monday was at Nusseirat refugee camp, where witnesses said seven civilians were killed and 70 wounded by two missiles. One hit a car and the other slammed into a crowd that gathered nearby, witnesses said.

A military spokeswoman rejected the Palestinian account, saying the army was unaware of civilian fatalities in Nusseirat.

"All of the missiles hit their targets," Major Sharon Feingold told Reuters, referring to helicopter gunships that the army said had chased down a carload of militants spotted trying to cross into Israel and suspected of planning an attack.

Later on Tuesday, Gaza militants fired four mortar bombs at a Jewish settlement and three homemade rockets at a town across the boundary with Israel, the army said. No one was hurt.

Sharon told parliament on Monday the attacks on militants would continue until the Palestinian Authority cracks down on them. Palestinians say that doing so would risk a civil war.

Israeli opposition leader Shimon Peres demanded an investigation into the Nusseirat deaths, saying: "The guilty one is the one who gives the orders to the air force."

Infrastructure Minister Yosef Paritsky of the centrist Shinui party said that when civilians were wounded: "Israel must apologize and find a way to compensate those who were hurt."

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