Israel hunts Islamic militants

Thursday, September 13, 2001

JERUSALEM -- Intensifying its hunt for Palestinian militants, Israel raided a West Bank town and two nearby villages on Wednesday, killing seven Palestinians, including three suspected Islamic militants and an 11-year-old girl.

Senior Palestinian officials accused Israel of exploiting the world's horror over the wave of terror in the United States to step up its strikes against Palestinian targets. Spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said Israel is "using this tremendous tragedy as a cover for an escalation against the Palestinians."

Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Yarden Vatikay called the allegation absurd, saying Israel went after Palestinian militants because the Palestinian Authority was not trying to prevent terror attacks.

Vatikay added that he believed the world's attitude toward the Mideast conflict was changing. "Now the world will not be as patient as it was before to the terror conducted and supported by the Palestinian Authority," he said.

After nightfall, an Israeli woman was killed in a Palestinian shooting ambush in the West Bank, the military said.

Starting after midnight, Israeli tanks moved into the West Bank town of Jenin and then entered Tamoun and Arrabeh, two nearby villages. Seven Palestinians were killed and at least 20 wounded in the raids. Two were members of the radical Islamic Jihad, killed when Israeli tanks shelled the house they were hiding in. The 11-year-old sister of a third militant also died, Palestinian security officials said.

The Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for many bomb attacks in Israel that have killed dozens and wounded hundreds.

In Tamoun, the Israelis destroyed a house that belonged to a suspected militant killed in an Israel raid in July.

In a separate incident, three Palestinian security officials were killed when their convoy of unmarked cars came under Israeli helicopter attack near Tamoun, witnesses said.

In Jenin, Israeli tanks and bulldozers destroyed a two-story police headquarters building. A gunman from the militant Hamas was killed by a tank shell during the incursion.

The Israeli army said the building was a "terror center." It confirmed the incursions into Tamoun and Arrabeh.

In Gaza, a Palestinian was killed when soldiers opened fire on a taxi. The military said the vehicle ignored orders to stop.

Israel, meanwhile, started easing restrictions adopted after the attacks in the United States, gradually opening its airspace, said Pini Schiff, Ports Authority spokesman.

He said planes would be cleared for landing from 22 airports in the first stage, including London; Paris; Vienna, Austria; Cairo, Egypt, and Amman, Jordan.

However, Israel's land border crossings would remain closed until further notice, he said.

The limitations scuttled Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's long-awaited trip to Syria to mend fences after two decades of strained relations. Arafat was to have met Wednesday in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Israel did not give Arafat permission to fly from Gaza to Egypt, and he was unable to make the trip by land, Palestinian officials said.

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