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Israeli tanks move into Palestinian towns after militia leader killed

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israeli tanks and troops moved into Bethlehem and Beit Jalla in the West Bank early Friday after a Palestinian militia leader was killed in a bomb blast blamed on Israel, a new upsurge in violence despite U.S. appeals for calm.

Atef Abayat, local leader of the Tanzim militia in Bethlehem, died Thursday, along with two other members of his militia in a huge explosion in his car. Within an hour, Palestinian gunmen opened fire at the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, built on war-won land annexed to Jerusalem. Israeli tanks started rolling into Palestinian territory after midnight.

The Israeli forces took control of hills and houses in Beit Jalla to stop the firing, according to the Israeli military. Soldiers and armed Palestinians exchanged gunfire.

Doctors said seven Palestinians were wounded, three critically, in Israeli fire at Beit Jalla, Bethlehem and another nearby town, Beit Sahour.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, a Palestinian security officer was killed Friday in a clash with Israeli forces, Palestinian officials said. The Israeli military was checking the report.

In Gaza, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy was killed when a shell he was playing with exploded, doctors and relatives said. They said an Israeli tank fired the shell overnight at the Khan Younis refugee camp.

Tanks rumbled about a half mile into neighboring Bethlehem from two directions, seizing three hotels and posting snipers on the rooftops, witnesses said. Dozens of buildings were damaged by machine gun and shell fire from the tanks, witnesses said.

Israeli Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir said the Israeli incursion ``will last as long as there will be shooting from Beit Jalla toward Jerusalem.'' He said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat failed to live up to his commitment to stop the firing.

Israel sent tanks into Beit Jalla on Aug. 28 and held the village for two days, withdrawing after they said Arafat pledged to maintain calm there.

In a similar situation, Israeli forces entered two Palestinian neighborhoods in the West Bank city of Hebron on Oct. 5 to stop gunfire at Jewish enclaves, pulling out after 10 days.

On Thursday, six Palestinians and one Israeli were killed, a day after the assassination of Israeli Cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi by militants from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The group claimed the killing was revenge for the death of PFLP leader Mustafa Zibri, targeted by Israel in an Aug. 27 missile attack.

Israel had demanded that the Palestinians arrest Abayat, charging that he was involved in killing five Israelis and directing gunfire from Beit Jalla at Gilo before a previous Israeli incursion stopped the exchanges in August. Abayat's militia is associated with Arafat's Fatah movement.

In a year of fighting, more than 50 Palestinians, including some bystanders, have been killed in targeted operations by Israeli special forces. Referring to the death of Abayat, Israeli government spokesman Dore Gold said, ``We are not confirming or denying what Israel did or didn't do.''

A statement from Sharon's office said the blast was a ``work accident,'' suggesting that Abayat died while working on a bomb, a contention ridiculed by Palestinians.

West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti charged the blast meant that Israel has ``decided to wage a comprehensive war against the Palestinian people.''

In Washington, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker called on Israel to show restraint despite the assassination, instead of letting terrorists sabotage peace moves. ``That's exactly what the perpetrators of these acts want to see happen,'' he said.

Concentrating on Afghanistan, the United States is concerned that Israel-Palestinian fighting could get in the way of efforts to include moderate Arab nations in its struggle against international terrorism.

In other violence Thursday, three Palestinians, including a 12-year-old schoolgirl, were killed when Israeli troops entered two Palestinian towns, and an Israeli was shot and killed by Palestinians in the desert between Jerusalem and Jericho.

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