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Thursday, 10 January, 2002, 02:39 GMT
Arafat under new pressure after attack
Israeli troops pass bodies of the two Palestinian gunmen and their weapons
Hamas said it was behind the fatal attack
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has squarely blamed Yasser Arafat for the deaths of four soldiers in an attack on an army post in southern Israel on Wednesday.

We are tired of all this talk - the test does not lie in words, it lies in deeds only

Ariel Sharon
Israeli prime minister

Mr Sharon said Israel would "act accordingly" in response to the killings, and to last week's interception at sea of a large arms shipment Israel says was destined for the Palestinian Authority.

The United States has also sharply criticised the Palestinian leadership, with Secretary of State Colin Powell demanding an "urgent explanation" of the arms shipment.

As the Palestinian leadership denied involvement in the arms affair and condemned the four deaths, Israeli forces reportedly launched an incursion into Palestinian-held territory.

In the early hours of Thursday, 12 tanks and bulldozers stormed the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah and started razing Palestinian homes under cover of heavy machine-gun fire, witnesses quoted by AFP said.

Before that Palestinian officials said three Israeli tanks and a bulldozer approached Gaza international airport and bulldozed a Palestinian security post.

Mr Sharon has dismissed the Palestinian Authority's condemnation as "redundant words which contain nothing".

"We hold the (Palestinian Authority) fully responsible for what happened and in a few days the government will... decide on its policy... not only in the wake of what happened today, which was extremely grave, but also in the wake of the weapons ship affair," he said on Israeli TV.

Border incursion

The Palestinian militant group Hamas said it carried out Wednesday's action, which marked the first fatal attack on Israelis since Mr Arafat called for a halt in December.

The Israeli army said eight Palestinians cut through the Gaza-Israel border fence before two attackers, dressed in Palestinian police uniforms, opened fire on soldiers guarding the Jewish community of Kerem Shalom.

One attacker was shot dead at the scene, while the other ran off and was killed by pursuing soldiers.

Israel's Bedouin Regiment
Volunteer unit for Israeli Arabs
Admired for their motivation
Valued as border scouts

Israeli media said the dead soldiers were Bedouin Arabs - one of whom was an army officer - serving in the army's Desert Reconnaissance Battalion.

The Palestinian Authority condemned the attack, saying it feared it would give Mr Sharon "an excuse to continue his military escalation and siege against our people".

Palestinian security forces are reported to have evacuated the Palestinian naval headquarters and police posts in Gaza in an effort to minimise the effect of any Israeli retribution.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the attack was "particularly disturbing because it came at a time when the situation on the ground had been relatively quiet".

US Secretary of State Colin Powell
Mr Powell was "quite firm with Arafat"

Israeli and Palestinian security officials agreed a few days earlier to try to work out a truce before US peace envoy Anthony Zinni returns to the region, on or around 18 January.

The White House spokesman added that the killings were an attack on the authority of Mr Arafat.

Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned Mr Arafat on Wednesday and asked for a "full explanation" of the arms shipment seized by Israel last Friday.

According to State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, Mr Powell was "quite firm with Arafat about this".

Israel says the boat it seized in the Red Sea last Thursday was carrying 50 tonnes of Iranian-supplied munitions to Gaza on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, and has invited the world's press to view the weapons.

Tel Aviv has also promised to release documents in the next few days that prove the direct involvement of Mr Arafat.

After a briefing of US officials by Israeli intelligence on Wednesday, an unnamed source in Washington quoted by Reuters said the "case is very compelling" that senior Palestinian authority figures, including President Yasser Arafat, were involved in the shipment.

Mr Arafat was quoted by Palestinian radio on Sunday as dismissing the arms ship issue as a "false Israeli invention".

The BBC's Nick Hawton
"Recent hopes of a breakthrough in peace talks have been severely threatened"
Israeli government spokesman, Dore Gold
"Mr Arafat has violated all the agreements"
Mustafa Barghouti, Palestinian activist
"Mr Sharon did not want to proceed with the peace process"
See also:

09 Jan 02 | Middle East
Israel halts mosque construction
09 Jan 02 | Middle East
Mid-East peace moves threatened
07 Jan 02 | Middle East
Arms ship 'owned by Iraqi'
06 Jan 02 | Middle East
US envoy optimistic over Mid-East talks
29 Nov 01 | key documents
The Mitchell report
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