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Israeli soldiers kill three Palestinians
( 2003-12-29 09:38) (Agencies)

Israeli soldiers Sunday killed three Palestinians near a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, and Israeli leaders signed orders to evacuate four settlement outposts in the West Bank, Israeli media reported.

A Palestinian woman, after climbing over the barrier, calls her small boy as he comes through a gap in a concrete barrier which separates the West Bank from Jerusalem, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2003. [Reuters]

In the Gaza incident, Israel Radio said three armed Palestinians approached the isolated settlement of Netzarim, southwest of Gaza City, late Sunday. Israeli tanks opened fire at them and killed them.

Israeli military sources said soldiers fired at armed Palestinians firing mortars at the settlement, and Palestinian police said three militants were killed.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appointed a prominent military officer to oversee his unilateral disengagement plan. Sharon said earlier this month that he was considering abandoning efforts to negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favor of a self-imposed disengagement from parts of the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel TV said Sharon and his defense minister ordered the removal of four of the dozens of outposts that the "road map" peace plan requires Israel to dismantle. All four are in the West Bank and are inhabited, the reports said, adding that settlers would be given 10 days to appeal.

The two ministers had no immediate comment.

Israel Radio reported that only one of the four outposts, Ginnot Arieh, is populated. Ten families live there.

The four are scattered around the West Bank and include one that had been removed before, but settlers rebuilt it. The largest of the outposts, Migron, with 43 families near the West Bank city of Ramallah, is not on the list, Israel Radio said.

The road map is a three-stage blueprint for ending three years of Palestinian-Israeli violence and establishing a Palestinian state in 2005. U.S. President Bush initiated the effort in June, but talks have broken down amid violence and internal political problems on both sides.

The first stage of the plan calls for "dismantlement" of violent Palestinian groups and the removal of outposts put up since March 2001, along with a freeze in construction in veteran settlements. Neither side has fulfilled those commitments, though Israel claims it has removed about 40 outposts most of them dummy settlements consisting of an empty trailer or bus skeleton.

Also Sunday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia left for Saudi Arabia to try to increase Saudi participation in Mideast negotiations. The visit will be Qureia's first to the Gulf region since he became prime minister in October.

"I will ask (Saudi Arabia) to play a role with the international community to pressure the Israelis to implement the road map," Qureia said before leaving.

In 2002, Saudi Arabia presented its own proposal for Middle East peace that was partially incorporated into the road map.

Qureia also said he would ask Saudi Arabia to step up its financial support for the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinian economy has been badly harmed by more than three years of violence, and more than 60 percent of the Palestinian Authority budget is supplied by international donors.

Sharon appointed Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland to direct a task force with representatives from the Defense, Foreign and Justice Ministries as well as the military and security services, a government statement said.

Eiland recently completed a term as head of the military's planning division and is to assume chairmanship of the National Security Council, a top advisory panel to the prime minister, in the coming weeks.

The idea of unilateral Israeli measures has drawn stiff Palestinian and U.S. criticism. Both insist that arrangements like borders must be reached through negotiations.

While Sharon has indicated that he would order removal of some Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip under the measures he is considering, the dividing line between Israeli and Palestinian-controlled territory would leave Israel in control of large swaths of land the Palestinians claim for a state.

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