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Israelis kill 15 Palestinians in Gaza battles
Updated: 2004-02-12 08:53

In their deadliest strike in months, Israeli troops killed at least 15 Palestinians in gunbattles in the Gaza Strip Wednesday during raids Israel said were to root out militants attacking Jewish settlements.

The army assault followed signs of unease in the military over a shock announcement by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last week that he planned to pull all settlers out of the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian witnesses said soldiers backed by tanks moved near dawn into Shijaia, a militant stronghold in densely packed Gaza City, opening fire and drawing a response from masked gunmen using assault rifles and anti-tank rockets.

Medics said 12 Palestinians, including at least six gunmen and one policeman, were killed. Another three were shot dead in another raid on the southern Gaza refugee camp of Rafah, where the army said it hit four gunmen. Scores were wounded.

Among the dead were Hani Abu Skhaila, a senior activist of the Hamas faction, at the forefront of suicide bombings during three years of conflict, and the 17-year-old son of Ahmed Helles, a leader of President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

The violence dealt a fresh blow to hopes of reviving talks on a U.S.-backed peace plan and Hamas and Fatah-linked militants urged major revenge attacks on Israel.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie called the raid a crime and, speaking during a visit to Rome, said it would "badly affect" talks due Sunday to prepare his first meeting with Sharon -- a summit for which no date has yet been fixed.

However, Qurie said: "there will be a meeting" despite militants' calls for the Palestinian Authority to scrap summit plans to discuss the stalled U.S.-backed peace "road map."

Israel's army said Palestinian "terror cells" had attacked with anti-tank missiles, bombs and gunfire. It said its operation aimed to thwart mortar and rocket attacks on Israelis.

"I am 100 percent sure that nobody who was not armed was hit," army Col. Yoel Strick told Reuters. "There has been an escalation in the past two weeks and we achieved our purpose."


Thousands of chanting mourners, firing occasional shots, surged through Gaza, bearing the dead through the waving flags of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah.

"Sharon, prepare body bags," shouted one activist through a loudspeaker. "Sooner or later your bodies will be collected off the streets, in markets and in restaurants."

Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed group of Fatah, vowed in a statement to carry out an "earthquake-like response in the depths of the Zionist entity."

Militants launched at least eight homemade Qassam rockets, of which four hit Israeli territory near the Gaza Strip, but caused no casualties or damage, an army spokesman told Reuters.

Palestinian witnesses said that an explosion in a house in Gaza's Khan Younis refugee camp injured two men, one from Fatah and one from Hamas, who were apparently making explosives.

Sharon stunned friends and foes alike last week when he announced plans to evacuate nearly all the 7,500 or so settlers who live in heavily-protected enclaves among some 1.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Israel seized Gaza and the West Bank, where Palestinians want a state, in the 1967 Middle East war.

Haaretz newspaper quoted Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Wednesday as saying removing settlers from Gaza would not necessarily mean a full military withdrawal and the army might keep some areas as "bargaining chips."

Israel's military intelligence chief cautioned lawmakers on Tuesday that Palestinian militants would see Sharon's proposal as a "victory for terror."

Some U.S. officials also said they feared unilateral Israeli moves to relocate Jewish settlers from Gaza would boost the standing of militant groups.

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