Israeli army kills 5 Palestinians in W. Bank
The Israeli army staged its deadliest West Bank raid in months Wednesday, killing five Palestinian gunmen in violence that overshadowed a new round of international diplomacy.
A Palestinian teen-ager was killed in a separate incident.
The latest bloodshed came amid conflicting signals on whether Israeli and Palestinian leaders were preparing to meet next week in their first summit in eight months.
In a sign that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was trying to please Washington ahead of the arrival of U.S. envoys, a political source said he had given instructions for the route of Israel's controversial West Bank barrier to be substantially shortened.
Troops operating undercover in the West Bank town of Jenin shot dead five members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed faction in Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, witnesses said. Israeli officials said the gunmen had been on their way to attack a nearby Jewish settlement.
A local militant leader vowed to exact "painful" revenge by staging an attack inside Israel, and the Palestinian Cabinet denounced the killings as "state terror."
Later Wednesday soldiers shot dead a 15-year-old Palestinian who threw a firebomb at a patrol at a refugee camp near the West Bank city of Hebron, medics and witnesses said.
Israeli political sources said that talks between Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart Ahmed Qurie, already delayed several times because of violence, had been tentatively scheduled for next Tuesday.
Qurie, during a visit to Oslo, said it was premature to talk of dates for a summit, though he said such a meeting would take place if preparatory talks were successful.
Underlining a possible new diplomatic push to stem the conflict, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini emerged from talks in Cairo to announce that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had persuaded the sides to meet on March 16.
Sources close to Sharon say he wants to hold talks to smooth the way for a White House meeting expected in late March or early April when he will present his unilateral plan to remove Jewish settlements from Gaza.
US ENVOYS DUE
U.S. envoys were due to visit Israel Thursday to sound out Sharon on the details of his initiative. Washington has warmed to Sharon's plan but wants assurances it will not mean abandonment of a U.S.-backed peace "road map."
In a move that was apparently meant to please Washington, Sharon had given instructions to cut 110 miles from the planned route of the concrete and wire barrier being built in the West Bank, a senior political source said.
Israel has faced international criticism over the original 450-mile route of the barrier designed to loop deep into the West Bank. Israel says it keeps out suicide bombers, Palestinians call it a land grab.
Any changes would still need government approval.
Much of the recent bloodshed has been concentrated in Gaza, where the army and militants appear to be positioning themselves to each claim any pull-out as a victory.
A botched suicide bombing and an army raid left 20 Palestinians dead last weekend.
Sharon's Gaza plan was expected to figure prominently in any summit between Sharon and Qurie.
Palestinians fear that by pursuing disengagement Israel is seeking to trade Gaza for permanent control over large parts of the West Bank with its larger settlements, effectively depriving them of land they want for a state.
Amid heightened diplomatic activity, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman met Arafat at his West Bank compound two days after holding talks with Sharon on the Gaza pull-out plan.