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Thursday, 12 December, 2002, 21:19 GMT
Two Israelis killed in West Bank
Israeli soldier patrolling Hebron
Hebron: Divided city often a flashpoint for violence
Two Israeli soldiers have been killed in a Palestinian attack in the West Bank town of Hebron.

Gunmen opened fired near a shrine holy to both Jews and Muslims - not far from the scene of a deadly ambush last month.

About 450 Israeli settlers live in heavily-protected enclaves among Hebron's 130,000 Palestinians.

Earlier, Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip shot dead six Palestinians in two separate incidents during Wednesday night.

Five were unarmed men who the Israeli military suspected were about to scale a border fence to enter Israel; the sixth a Palestinian caught apparently trying to infiltrate the Gush Katif settlement bloc, military sources said.

According to latest reports, another suspected Palestinian infiltrator was shot dead on Thursday evening - apparently after entering Israel.

Jewish corridor

The Israeli army said two Israeli soldiers were hit by gunmen in Hebron after nightfall, as they manned an army outpost near the Tomb of the Patriarchs shrine.

Rescue officials said a young female soldier was killed instantly, while the male soldier died on the way to a Jerusalem hospital.

In last month's ambush, 12 members of the Israeli security forces were killed in an ambush as settlers were returning to a nearby Jewish settlement after prayers at the shrine.

Yasser Arafat
Arafat: Considering postponing next month's elections
The 15 November attack prompted Israeli soldiers to impose curfews and take control of Palestinian sections of Hebron, which was divided under an interim peace deal of 1997.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also pledged to build a Jewish-controlled corridor through the centre of Hebron despite strong Arab and international criticism.

Christmas plans

In another development, Israel has told the Vatican that troops will leave the West Bank town of Bethlehem over Christmas provided there is no "terrorist alert".

The promise was made at a meeting in Rome between Pope John Paul and Israeli President Moshe Katsav.

The Vatican used the meeting to urge Israel to allow free access to Bethlehem during the Christmas celebrations.

Earlier this week, an adviser to Mr Sharon said Yasser Arafat should not be allowed to attend a church service in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.

Mr Arafat is, meanwhile, considering whether Palestinian elections scheduled for January should go ahead.

The Palestinian committee organising the election said it would announce its recommendation on the matter next Monday.

However it complained that it was unable to carry out its work "as a result of the Israeli occupation".

Barghouti challenge

The presidential and legislative elections were called by Mr Arafat for 20 January after domestic and international pressure for reform of the Palestinian Authority.

Marwan Barghouti (centre) shouts back at a heckler outside a Tel Aviv court
Barghouti: First major figure in the intifada to be tried by Israel
West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti failed in an attempt to halt Israeli legal proceedings against him on Thursday.

Mr Barghouti - among the most popular of the younger generation of Palestinian leaders - had argued that a Tel Aviv court had no right to try him because he is a member of the Palestinian parliament.

He is standing trial on charges of murder, incitement to murder, and belonging to and acting on behalf of a terror organisation.

He was seized by Israeli forces in the West Bank in April.

The BBC's Barbara Plett
"The gunmen opened fire near a shrine"

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12 Dec 02 | Middle East
17 Nov 02 | Middle East
16 Nov 02 | Middle East
16 Nov 02 | Middle East
03 Dec 01 | issues
15 Nov 02 | Middle East
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