US Mideast Envoy's Mission Begins Amid Bloody Violence.
By Meredith Buel (VOA-Jerusalem)
Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni has launched a new mission designed to broker a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians amid a continuing upsurge in violence. At least nine Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers died in fresh fighting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Zinni arrived and immediately went into meetings with top Israeli security and political officials. U.S. diplomats said he will hold talks with top Palestinian leaders very soon.
Near the West Bank town of Tulkarm, an Israeli combat helicopter fired missiles that killed a local leader of a Palestinian militant group and another man. Also near Tulkarm, Israeli helicopter gunships killed a Palestinian militant and another man at a chicken farm. Israel said the targeted man made explosive belts for suicide bombers. He was a local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a group in the forefront of anti-Israeli attacks.
Palestinians blew up an Israeli Merkava battle tank in the Gaza Strip, killing three crewmen. Several Palestinian factions claim responsibility for detonating the bomb under the 60-ton tank on a road leading to the Jewish settlement of Netzarim. Five Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops in or near Ramallah, invaded by Israeli forces two days ago in what it calls an anti-terror offensive.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah at least five Palestinians were killed before Israel announced it was beginning a phased withdrawal from the city after its largest military operation in at least 20 years. In the biblical town of Bethlehem, Palestinian gunmen shot dead two suspected collaborators, tying one of the bodies to a truck and dragging it through the streets. The gunmen tried to hang the body from a building on Manger Square, overlooking the sight where tradition says Jesus was born, but Palestinian police prevented the hanging.
One of the men slain had been sentenced, the other only accused, for assisting the Israelis in the killing two local Palestinian militia leaders. Another suspected informer for Israel was killed Tuesday and his body hung in the central square of Ramallah. About two dozen alleged collaborators have been killed by fellow Palestinians during the last 18 months of fighting.
Earlier, three Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza when a powerful explosion went off near their Merkava or chariot tank, considered one of the most heavily armored in the world. Meanwhile, both Israeli and Palestinian officials said they are ready to negotiate a ceasefire with Zinni's help, but only if the other side stops fighting.
Israeli government spokesman Raanan Gissin said the time has come for truce talks. "We are willing and trying to establish a ceasefire, and we also welcome General Zinni with his effort to bring about a ceasefire. But we will have to exercise our right of self-defense, and we will have to continue and take all the necessary military action in order to prevent attacks against our soldiers and against our citizens."
Since the beginning of this month more than 160 Palestinians and 60 Israelis have been killed in the worst period of bloodshed since the current conflict began in September 2000.