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Two Palestinians killed amid fresh Mideast tensions
( 2003-12-23 13:53) (Agencies)

Israeli forces killed two Palestinians in a Gaza Strip raid Tuesday, hours after radical Palestinians shouting "traitor" attacked Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher's entourage in a Jerusalem mosque.

The incidents highlighted Middle East tensions clouding efforts to revive a stalled U.S.-backed peace "road map."

Maher was rushed to hospital for checks after the attack on Monday that followed landmark talks with Israeli leaders at which officials said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signaled he would welcome any truce by Palestinian militants.

Militant groups have so far rebuffed Egyptian efforts to broker a cease-fire and revive the road map.

Witnesses said Maher, 68, the most senior Egyptian minister to visit Israel since a Palestinian uprising began in 2000, was jostled and possibly struck by a crowd shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is greater) at al-Aqsa mosque.


The crowd threw shoes they had removed for prayers at his entourage and at Israeli police taking him out of the ancient mosque, Islam's third holiest shrine. Striking someone with a shoe is a traditional Muslim insult.

Egypt expressed "deep regret" at the attack, but said its commitment to peace in the region was undimmed.

Relations between Israel and Egypt have begun to improve after taking a dive over Israel's crackdown against the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.

An Israeli police spokesman said the attackers were from a fringe Islamic group called the Liberation Party. Police arrested seven Palestinians over the incident.

Some Palestinians have never forgiven Egypt for signing a peace deal with the Jewish state in 1979.

A senior Israeli official said Sharon promised Maher at their meeting that if Palestinian militants agreed to a truce, Israel would "respond with quiet" -- apparently going a step closer to what the militants want.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie said he was "shocked and furious" at the attack and vowed to pursue those behind it.

Tuesday's Gaza raid by Israeli forces occurred hours after two Israeli army officers were killed in an ambush in central Gaza, the first Israeli deaths in fighting in the occupied territories in a month.

Two Palestinian militant factions claimed responsibility for killing the army officers. A gunman was later shot dead.

Palestinian witnesses said several Israeli tanks entered a refugee camp in the Rafah area Tuesday and drew gunfire from militants.

Israeli soldiers shot dead a 50-year-old man in the camp and critically wounded two gunmen, one of whom died later, Palestinian medics said.

An Israeli military source said the soldiers entered Rafah "as part of a continuous fight" to find and destroy a series of smuggling tunnels through which explosives were brought in from neighboring Egypt.

The source said the soldiers opened fire at Palestinians trying to plant or activate an explosive and hit two people.

Israel has demanded a Palestinian crackdown on militant groups and has warned that if the road map fails, it will take unilateral action to separate itself from the Palestinians, taking some land they want for a state.

Palestinians say Israel must meet its own obligations by removing Jewish outposts and freezing settlement construction on occupied land, as well as halt work on a wire and concrete barrier being built through the West Bank.

Israel says the barrier is necessary for its security to keep out suicide bombers and gunmen.

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