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Israeli military kills 3 wanted militants

Bush says world should thank Sharon for pullout

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli troops early Thursday killed three wanted Palestinian militants near the Nur-a-Shams refugee camp in the West Bank, Israeli military sources said.

Based on intelligence information, Israeli forces confronted the members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, killing them when they approached Israeli soldiers with their weapons drawn.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades is the military wing of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement and has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States.

According to the sources, Israeli forces killed Bilal Abu Amshe -- the head of the Al Aqsa Brigades in the Tulkarem area -- Ghanem Ghanem and Imam Ibrahim.

Palestinian security sources described the encounter as an ambush by Israeli troops. They said Amshe, 29, and Ghanem, 31, were members of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, but identified the third man as Ayman Barahmeh, 25.

Palestinian security said he was a friend of the other two men, but not a member of the militant group. Barahmeh's 5-year-old son was killed by Israel seven months ago, the security sources said.

In southern Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces on Thursday said it destroyed two abandoned structures in Gaza that hid the entrances to tunnels used for smuggling weapons from Egypt into Gaza.

On Wednesday, 10 Palestinians were killed during the second day of an Israeli operation in northern Gaza, Palestinian medical and security sources said.

The IDF said its forces entered Beit Lahaya after 16 Qassam rockets were fired from the Palestinian village in recent days.

Israeli forces encountered Palestinians who threw Molotov cocktails, grenades and rocks, the IDF reported.

The Palestinian sources said the dead included a 14-year-old boy, two from Islamic Jihad, one from Hamas and a ground leader from Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. All three groups are designated terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department

The IDF said that during the operation a helicopter gunship fired at a group of Palestinians planting an explosive device.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat condemned the "Israeli military escalation in Gaza."

"We believe that at a time when Israel is speaking about withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, they are actually preparing the ground to reoccupy it," he said.

The army told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that its forces were operating in an area where militants had fired Qassam rockets since Sunday.

The previous day, Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi was killed in an Israeli missile strike on his car in Gaza, sparking angry protests on Palestinian streets and threats of reprisals from Hamas.

Rantisi was the Hamas leader in Gaza for less than a month and was appointed after his predecessor -- the militant group's founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin -- was also killed in an Israeli helicopter attack.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has vowed the policy of killing those Israel considers terrorists will continue. Hamas, meanwhile, said it has appointed a new leader for Gaza but is not going to be naming him publicly.

Attempted jailbreak

Armed men attacked the central jail in Gaza City Wednesday night, possibly in an attempt to free four Palestinians being held in connection with a deadly attack on an American diplomatic convoy last October, Palestinian security sources said.

Police surrounded the area and gunfire could be heard. It was unknown whether security at the jail had been breached or how many people might have been killed or injured.

The attack began shortly after 9:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m. ET) and few details were immediately available.

Last October 15, a roadside bomb went off beneath a convoy carrying U.S. diplomatic personnel in Gaza, killing three American members of a security detail and injuring one other person.

The victims were working for DynCorp, a contractor that provides security for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in Israel.

The American officials were in Gaza to interview Palestinian students applying for Fulbright scholarships to study in the United States.

Bush: World should thank Sharon

In Washington, meanwhile, President Bush on Wednesday reiterated his support for Sharon's planned unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Bush's support for the Sharon plan has been condemned by Palestinian leaders as an illegitimate land grab and an attempt by Sharon to set the borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state rather than negotiating them as part of a final settlement.

Many European governments also are not happy with the White House, believing its endorsement of the Israeli plan signals an abandonment of Washington's usual role of not taking public positions on points characterized as "final status" issues to be settled in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Bush said Wednesday: "The whole world should have said, 'Thank you, Ariel,' " Instead, Bush said, there "was kind of silence ... because the responsibility is hard."

Speaking to newspaper editors in Washington, Bush said: "Ariel Sharon came to America and he stood up with me and he said, 'We are pulling out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank.'

"In my judgment, the whole world should have said, 'Thank you, Ariel. Now we have a chance to begin the construction of a peaceful Palestinian state,' " Bush said.

"Yet, there was kind of silence, wasn't there? Because the responsibility is hard. It's hard to be responsible for promoting freedom and peace when you're used to something else."

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