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Friday, 8 March, 2002, 21:39 GMT
Mid-East sees bloodiest day
The Palestinians buried a general (left) as Israel laid its students to rest (right)
Friday has become the bloodiest day in the 17 months of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, against Israel, with at least 45 people reported dead.

Following the killing of five Israeli students by a Palestinian gunman, Israeli forces launched military operations across the territories.

At least 39 Palestinians were reported dead, with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat putting the toll as high as 58.

Negotiations to stop the shooting will be held under fire

Ariel Sharon

But as the violence raged, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that he was ready to discuss a lasting truce with the Palestinians even if hostilities continued.

"Negotiations to stop the shooting will be held under fire," he said on Israeli TV.

Previously, Mr Sharon had insisted on a period of calm before entering any negotiations.

The fighting erupted just after US President George Bush announced he was sending his peace envoy Anthony Zinni back to the region.

Mr Arafat said that in addition to 58 dead many people had been wounded, Palestinian radio reported.

He accused Mr Sharon and his government of seeking to destroy the peace process.

Heavy losses

The fighting began with a night attack on the students at Atzmona settlement in the Gaza Strip and Israeli helicopters were still striking Palestinians targets by the end of the day.

Palestinian would-be suicide attacker shows off his lethal explosives in Bethlehem
Violence from both sides has reached a peak
Among the Palestinian dead was Major General Ahmed Mefraj, the deputy commander in Gaza and most senior Palestinian to be killed since the start of the intifada.

He and at least 16 other Palestinians died fighting Israeli troops on a search mission in the Gaza village of Khozza.

Fighting was no less fierce in the West Bank where 20 Palestinians were killed, Mr Arafat's radio station reported. An Israeli soldier also died in the violence.

Throughout the day, Israeli helicopter gunships were on the attack with attacks on Hebron in the West Bank and the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip reported after dark.

Shock attack

Israel has been in shock at the attack on the heavily guarded Jewish settlement of Atzmona in the Gaza Strip.

A Hamas gunman kept up a grenade and gun attack for 20 minutes before being shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

Israeli victim of attack in Atzmona
A lone gunman mowed down Jewish students at prayer
The Israeli army commander in Gaza, Brigadier General Israel Ziv, said Israel was dealing with "people without any morals, any values - a cruel enemy".

On Friday afternoon, Israeli police shot dead a suspected would-be suicide bomber in northern Jerusalem.

Correspondents say the rising death toll and the increasing force of Israeli military action and rhetoric have stung Washington into action.

President Bush called on Mr Arafat to try harder to stop attacks on Israelis and he appealed to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to do everything he could to make Mr Zinni's efforts a success.

US Vice President Dick Cheney will also begin a tour of the region on Sunday.

The BBC's Jake Lynch
"Every attack on Israelis brings calls for a military response"
The BBC's Stephen Cviic
"We have had a Friday of unprecedented violence"
Sam Lewis, former US ambassador to Israel
"Sharon is really in a very tight spot"
See also:

08 Mar 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Mid-East fire and fury
08 Mar 02 | Middle East
Attacks overshadow US peace moves
08 Mar 02 | Middle East
Analysis: Scant hope for US diplomacy
07 Mar 02 | Middle East
Israeli operations timeline
05 Mar 02 | Middle East
Head to head: Mid-East violence surges
08 Mar 02 | Media reports
Israeli media criticise government
04 Mar 02 | Media reports
Israeli cabinet clash over Arafat
03 Mar 02 | Middle East
Israel on the defensive
03 Jan 02 | Middle East
Tough times for US Mid-East envoy
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