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Gaza bomb hits US diplomats on scholarship drive
( 2003-10-16 04:51) (Reuters)

US diplomats came to a war zone with an encouraging message for Palestinian students dreaming of higher learning away from the pain and privation of home.

But good intentions, plus bulletproof jeeps and armed guards, could not protect their convoy on Wednesday from a roadside bomb that ripped through it en route to a meeting with Fulbright scholarship candidates in the Gaza Strip.

Three American guards were killed and a junior US diplomat was wounded in the blast, the first deadly attack on foreign envoys during three years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Palestinian militant groups denied involvement. Many Palestinians resent what they see as US bias in favour of Israel in the conflict, but most do not regard Americans as enemies.

"I condemn the act completely and believe all Palestinians are against it and reject it," Reyad al-Agha, head of Gaza's Al-Azhar University, told Reuters. He added that several of his students were interested in applying for the Fulbright.

"I do not know who was behind this but it certainly aimed ...to undermine and worsen the relationship between Palestinians and Americans," he saids.

Asked if the attack would affect future Fulbright programmes extended to Palestinians, US Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer told reporters in Tel Aviv" Funded by the US Congress, the scholarships place foreigners in American graduate programmes "to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries," according to the web site of the US embassy in Israel.

The programme was established in 1946 under legislation introduced by the late Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas.

Fulbright alumni in Gaza could not immediately be reached. One Palestinian security source said they were cautioned not to comment while investigations continued.

It was not known how many Palestinians are currently on Fulbright scholarships.

US diplomatic missions in Palestinian territories have had other functions, for example ferrying CIA observers to meetings with security officials. Embassy spokesmen would not comment on any other role Wednesday's convoy might have had.

For Palestinians who often accuse Washington of siding with Israel, the Fulbright -- like $26 million in relief aid announced by US President George W. Bush in August -- goes a long way to improving the world superpower's image.

Still, when US investigators arrived at the bomb site on Wednesday, they beat a retreat under a barrage of rocks from youths at a nearby refugee camp known as a militant stronghold.

The United States, champion of an international "road map" to Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza by 2005, backs Israel's precondition of a crackdown on militant groups.

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