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Friday, 15 March, 2002, 19:16 GMT
Deaths overshadow Zinni mission
Anthony Zinni and Yasser Arafat
The Palestinian leader has his own ceasefire plan
A Palestinian woman and four children have died in an explosion near a Gaza refugee camp as US Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni pursued his latest peace mission.

Palestinian officials said the woman, her three children and a young nephew had been riding in a donkey cart near al-Bureij camp when they detonated a landmine left behind by withdrawing Israeli security forces.

As always, I'm optimistic. Despite the conditions, I think there are the ingredients here for hope

US envoy Anthony Zinni
Israel has denied any responsibility, saying the explosion was caused by Palestinian militants.

Mr Zinni has been meeting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, following talks with Israeli ministers.

To coincide with his visit, Israeli forces withdrew from key areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that they had occupied in the army's biggest ground operation for 20 years.

The withdrawal brought praise from US President George W Bush who also said he was hopeful that Mr Zinni would succeed in bringing about a ceasefire.

Tanks withdraw

Mr Zinni has already met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

After his meeting with Mr Peres in Tel Aviv, Mr Zinni said: "As always, I'm optimistic. Despite the conditions, I think there are the ingredients here for hope. So, I'm encouraged."

He then travelled to meet Mr Arafat who, according to one of the Palestinian leader's senior aides, was waiting with his own ceasefire plan.

Israeli tank
Israeli tanks withdrew from key areas
Israeli forces pulled back from Ramallah, Tulkarm, Qalqilya and parts of the Gaza Strip early on Friday, although reports said tanks remained close by.

The army remains in parts of Bethlehem and is still surrounding some other Palestinian areas.

Israel described the withdrawal as a goodwill gesture designed to help General Zinni's efforts.

More violence

Palestinians dismissed the moves as a political trick.

The US has been insisting on a complete withdrawal by Israel from all the Palestinian areas it has occupied over the past few days, as a precondition for ceasefire talks.

The Palestinian Authority has also said the Israelis should withdraw fully before they will hold talks.

Palestinian gunman
Palestinian militants are vowing to keep up their attacks
But even as the talks got under way there were reports of more violence.

Palestinian security chiefs in Gaza said a landmine left behind by occupying forces caused the explosion that killed Zeina Awawdeh, 43, her son Salem, eight, her daughters Dahani, 14, and Amaneh, 16 and a nephew, Tareq, 12.

Two other children were also injured.

They described the explosion as a crime, committed by Israel against a mother and her children.

A spokesman for the Israeli defence forces told the BBC the Israeli army had nothing to do with the explosion.

They suggested the mine was a device left by Palestinian militants and meant to harm Israeli forces.

Earlier in Ramallah, eyewitnesses told the BBC that two Israeli armoured vehicles had been attacked and destroyed.

The Israeli army denied this, saying that none of its armoured vehicles had been hit.

It said that a car blew up killing two Palestinians on a road east of Ramallah.

Enlarge image Enlarge map
Map of the West Bank and Gaza
Earlier, six Palestinians were killed in separate incidents elsewhere on the West Bank.

A BBC correspondent says that Mr Zinni faces an uphill battle.

Experts believe he will propose that US monitors oversee any truce - something the Palestinians have been calling for and the Israelis now say they would accept.

The BBC's Ben Brown
"The Palestinian people reclaim the streets of Ramallah"
Gideon Meir, Israeli Foreign Ministry
"We are very eager for General Zinni to succeed"
UN Special Middle East CoordinatorTerje Roed-Larsen
"A real ceasefire may be produced"
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat
"The damage inflicted on us limits what we can do"
See also:

23 Jan 02 | Middle East
Rounding up Palestinian militants
12 Mar 02 | Middle East
Ramallah operation ups stakes
12 Mar 02 | Middle East
Annan appeal brings mixed response
12 Mar 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Israel goes in hard
12 Mar 02 | Middle East
Six Israelis killed in gun attack
12 Mar 02 | Middle East
Controversy over 'execution' pictures
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