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Israel raid Bethlehem after bus bombing
( 2004-01-30 14:12) (Agencies)

Israeli forces pushed into Bethlehem on Friday for the first time in six months in a sweep for militants after a Palestinian policeman from the city killed 10 Israelis in a suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus.

Near the West Bank city of Hebron, soldiers shot dead a Hamas militant who the army said had opened fire at them as they entered his house to arrest him.

Palestinian witnesses said Israeli armored vehicles rumbled into Bethlehem before daybreak and troops fanned out to search houses, including one where the policeman -- a member of the militant Al Aqsa Brigades -- was thought to have lived.

Witnesses said soldiers detained 12 Palestinians. About 15 Israeli armored vehicles took part in the operation.

"The operation was launched after we made clear the Palestinians had not fulfilled their obligations to stop terror, something which was made clear in yesterday's bombing," an army spokeswoman said.

Israel handed Bethlehem to Palestinian police in July to bolster a now violence-stalled peace "road map." Israeli officials said at the time the army would be back if Palestinian forces did not rein in militants in the city of Jesus's birth.

Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, linked to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, claimed the bombing and issued a letter left by the bomber that said he was avenging an Israeli raid that killed eight Palestinians in Gaza on Wednesday.

It was the deadliest suicide bombing since an October 4 attack on a Haifa restaurant, where a woman bomber from the Islamic Jihad faction killed 23 other people.

The bombing, which also wounded dozens, overshadowed the latest push by a United States envoy to revive the road map.

But in a hopeful sign for mediation efforts, U.S. officials said Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie had told them he was ready for a summit with Israeli leader Ariel Sharon.

The Palestinian Authority condemned the bombing and also called for a halt to Israeli violence. Israel accuses the Palestinians of failing to crack down on militants.


Sharon expressed his condolences for families bereaved by the bus attack at a ceremony on Thursday for three dead soldiers brought home in a deal with Lebanese guerrilla foe Hizbollah.

"This (the bombing) appears to be the price paid by a society that holds life sacred living alongside a society that does not lift even a finger in order to uproot the murder and evil from within," he said.

Israel freed hundreds of Arab prisoners -- most of them Palestinians -- in exchange for the three soldiers and a captive businessman, Elhanan Tannenbaum, who was to be questioned by security services after returning to Israel.

The young soldiers, Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Souad, were abducted on a border patrol in 2000. Souad was one of the many Israeli Bedouin Arabs who volunteer for the army as trackers. All three were to be buried on Friday.

Some 30 Arab prisoners, mostly Lebanese, also returned to a heroes' welcome in Beirut, where Hizbollah threatened more kidnappings as an option if Israel did not free the longest-serving Lebanese prisoner.

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