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Israeli helicopters fire missiles at Hebron

Monday, December 10, 2001

Associated Press WriterHEBRON, West Bank (AP) -- Israeli helicopters fired missiles at a Palestinian car in this West Bank town Monday, killing two boys, ages 3 and 13, hospital officials said. Seven passengers and bystanders were wounded, including the apparent target of the strike, a suspected Islamic militant.

The Israeli military declined comment. In the past 15 months of fighting, Israel has killed dozens of militants -- suspected of plotting bombings and shooting attacks on Israelis -- often by firing rockets at their cars.

Monday's helicopter strike came a day after the Israeli security Cabinet reportedly approved more military strikes against Palestinian targets, including air attacks, incursions into Palestinian territory and targeted killings of suspected militants.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, meanwhile, dropped plans to attend this week's gathering of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Qatar. Arafat, who was to have left for Doha on Sunday evening, feared Israel would not allow him to return, said Palestinian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Arafat's concerns were confirmed by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher that "we (Israeli officials) have no objection to him (Arafat) leaving and going to Doha, on condition he doesn't return," Egyptian newspapers quoted Mubarak as saying.

In the helicopter attack in Hebron, Israeli helicopter gunships fired several missiles that damaged at least three cars waiting at a traffic light. One car took a direct hit and was charred and smoking. Two other vehicles were struck by debris that shattered windows and windshields. Hundreds of people surrounded the cars.

"There were two helicopters in the sky and we heard an explosion," said witness Ahmed Qawasmeh, 34. "Everyone came out of their shops and their cars to see what happened. We heard another explosion and then we ran toward the cars to pick up the people who were hit."

Dr. Jamil Haslamoun at Ahli Hospital in Hebron identified those killed as 13-year-old Shadi Arafi and 3-year-old Burhan Himouni. Half the younger child's head was missing, said Dr. Haslamoun.

The younger boy, along with his father and an activist of the militant Islamic Jihad group, Mohammed Ayoub Sidr, 26, were riding in the car that took the direct missile hit. The two men, who are related by marriage, were seriously wounded, hospital officials said. Relatives said they had been on their way to a bakery to buy traditional sweets for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

The 13-year-old boy, Shadi Arafi, and his father, Ahmed, were riding in a taxi behind the car hit by the missile. "My son was next to me. I don't know what happened. All I know is that I carried my son into the hospital," Arafi said before breaking down in tears.

Arafat, meanwhile, came under mounting criticism from U.S. leaders for failing to rein in Palestinian militants who have carried out a string of bombing and shooting attacks on Israelis.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday that the attacks are "destroying (Arafat's) authority and credibility," while Vice President Dick Cheney told NBC's "Meet the Press" that "until Arafat demonstrates that he is serious about suicide attackers, there won't be progress."

The United States and Israel have demanded that Arafat do more to stop terrorists; he says he is already cracking down on them and that 180 suspects have been arrested.

American diplomatic efforts hit a rough patch Sunday as U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni told Israeli and Palestinian security officials that if they didn't make real progress in the next 48 hours, he would consider leaving the region, Israeli and Palestinian officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Israeli said Zinni -- who arrived in Israel just two weeks ago, saying he would stay as long as it took to restore calm and restart peace talks -- stood up and left talks between the two sides after issuing his ultimatum.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Paul Patin declined to comment, other than to say the United States planned to convene another meeting in a few days.

Zinni met with Sharon on Monday. The Israeli leader told Zinni that he "attaches great importance to the continuance of his missions to the region," said a statement by Sharon's office.

European Union foreign ministers on Monday met Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and top Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath in an effort to halt the violence, but they held out little hope for progress. "It's a grim situation," said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in Brussels, Belgium.

Israeli security sources say they have intelligence warnings that Palestinian militants are planning fresh attacks in northern Israel, where a suicide bomber struck on Sunday, killing himself and lightly injuring 11 bystanders.

Police set up roadblocks around the town of Afula and security forces were on increased alert in the town of Hadera and in the port city of Haifa, the site of yesterday's attack and a bus bombing a week earlier, which killed 15 people.


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