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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 April, 2003, 22:43 GMT 23:43 UK
Six die as Israelis storm camp
Injured man in hospital
Hospitals have appealed for blood donors
Israeli troops have pulled out of a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip after one of their biggest military operations against suspected Palestinian militants in 30 months of conflict.

Five Palestinians and one Israeli military photographer are reported to have been killed during the assault early on Sunday, which was backed by tanks and helicopter gunships.

The BBC's James Rodgers in Gaza says that according to medical staff at the main hospital in Rafah, a 15-year-old boy was among the dead and at least 40 other Palestinians were injured.

A funeral in Rafah, attended by thousands of people, has now been held for the Palestinians who died.

The operation appears to have targeted one of two suspected militant strongholds in the Rafah refugee camp.

It came amid arguments between newly-appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over the formation of a new cabinet - a row which threatens to delay plans to publish Washington's so-called roadmap for peace.

Rocket attack

Following the withdrawal of Israeli troops, Palestinians fired three Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip at the Israeli town of Sderot, the town's mayor said. At least one woman was injured.

Palestinian security sources described the raid as one of the largest Israeli incursions into Rafah during 30 months of conflict between the two sides.

A force of up to 50 tanks and armoured vehicles entered the town and nearby refugee camp from three directions under cover of darkness and a fierce battle ensued.

Tanks reached the centre and surrounded the main market.

The crackle of gunfire could be heard all around, residents said.

"I was sitting outside with some friends playing cards when suddenly we came under fire," said Marwan Khatib, 39.

"Bullets hit the wall next to us and tanks were coming toward us very fast."

Increased tensions

A Palestinian official told the BBC that ambulances had not been able to collect wounded people - and hospitals were appealing for blood donors to come forward.

Damaged building
Several buildings were badly damaged

Three Israeli soldiers were also injured in the incursion.

Witnesses said the Israelis brought empty buses with them on the military operation, apparently because troops wanted to detain suspected militants.

Our correspondent says there were reports of Israeli soldiers carrying out house-to-house searches.

The densely populated Rafah refugee camp, close to the Israeli-Egyptian border, is home to more than 90,000 people.

Our correspondent says tension has increased in the area since the Israeli army began building a security fence to protect its forces.

During this process, Israeli troops have demolished houses which they say were used as firing positions by Palestinian fighters.

This has left many civilians homeless and apparently increased the determination of militant groups to strike at the Israeli army.




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The BBC's James Rodgers
"Tanks and armoured vehicles were engaged in a fierce battle"



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