Violence accompanies Powell's Mideast peace mission

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israeli troops shot dead three Palestinians on Monday, as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell wound up a Mideast mission in which he called for moves toward peace from Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers. 

Israel, meanwhile, imposed the tightest closure ever on the Gaza Strip, barring Palestinians and foreign nationals, including journalists, from leaving or entering. 

Only diplomats were exempt from the restrictions. 

Powell told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday that Israel must ease restrictions that have caused severe hardships for Palestinians through 31 months of fighting.  

He also called on Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to crack down on violent groups responsible for attacks on Israel. 

In the first sign that a thaw might be developing, Israel Radio reported late Sunday that Israel and the Palestinians had resumed security contacts. 

The report said Israeli Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad met Saturday night with Mohammed Dahlan, minister in charge of security in the Palestinian Cabinet. 

Such contacts were a key element of interim peace accords but were suspended because of the violence. 

However, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz declared that Israel would pursue its campaign against Palestinian militants, and a leader of the violent Islamic Hamas said his group would not give up its weapons. 

In a pre-dawn incursion Monday, Israeli troops backed by tanks and helicopters raided the Gaza Strip town of Rafah, near the Egyptian border, demolishing five buildings it said housed entrances to tunnels used for smuggling in arms. 

In an ensuing firefight, soldiers shot dead two Palestinian gunmen, Palestinian security sources said. The army withdrew after almost two hours. 

The army said soldiers shot two armed Palestinians as they were planting a bomb near the Israeli troops. 

In nearby Khan Younis, troops shot dead a Palestinian farmworker as he tilled a field near an Israeli army lookout post, witnesses and hospital staff said. The military had no immediate comment. 

In violence Sunday, Palestinian gunmen opened fire on an Israeli car in the West Bank, killing the driver, a father of six. 

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to the mainstream Fatah movement, and the radical Popular Front claimed joint responsibility. 

A few hours later, Israel sent 20 tanks and armored vehicles into the West Bank town of Jenin, surrounding a house. 

Three Islamic Jihad activists surrendered, including one who was involved in car bomb attacks last year that killed 31 Israelis, the military said. 

At that hour, Powell was meeting with Abbas in Jericho, far away from Arafat's Ramallah office.  

The United States has declared a boycott of Arafat, and in an interview with Israel TV, Powell did not ask Israel to guarantee his safety. 

Asked whether the United States had repeated its request to Sharon to keep from harming Arafat, Powell turned the answer around. 

Sharon "has not communicated to me or to President Bush in any way that he has changed his position'' about not targeting the veteran Palestinian leader, Powell said,adding that he and Sharon did not spend much time discussing Arafat. Several Israeli Cabinet ministers demand that Arafat be expelled. 

Arafat has been confined to his office for more than a year, often encircled by Israeli tanks and otherwise limited by an Israeli threat not to let him return if he leaves. 

Israel and the United States charge that Arafat is tainted with terrorism. 

The U.S.-backed road map is a three-stage, three-year plan leading to a Palestinian state. 

The first step includes the declarations: Palestinians "immediately undertake an unconditional cessation of violence,'' and Israel "takes all necessary steps to help normalize Palestinian life. 

Israel withdraws from Palestinian areas occupied'' since the beginning of the current conflict in September 2000. 

At a news conference with Powell in Jericho - the only West Bank town not occupied by Israeli forces - Abbas said he was prepared to make the declaration mandated by the "road map'' peace plan "on the same day, at the same hour, at the same minute'' as Sharon does. 

On Monday, Powell is to meet representatives of the other three members of the "Quartet'' sponsoring the road map - the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. 

Powell backed Israel's insistence that Abbas move against militant groups. "We must ... see rapid and decisive actions by the Palestinians to disarm and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure,'' he said. 

In Gaza, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a leader of the violent Islamic Hamas, warned that if the Palestinian leadership cracks down on militants - as it did in 1996 - "it will be like political suicide for the Palestinian government.'' Hamas has claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis. 

Before Powell met Sharon in Jerusalem on Sunday, Israel announced that it was releasing 61 Palestinian prisoners from a lockup in the southern Israeli Negev desert. 

Israel presented this as a goodwill gesture, but Palestinians said the prisoners were due to be released in the coming days. "It's throwing dust in his (Powell's) eyes,'' Palestinian Prisoners' Club leader Issa Karakea said. 

Israel is holding about 5,000 Palestinians. - AP 

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