Israeli Troops Increase Killings
In Total Defiance Of Bush's Call


(AFP) - Israel kept up its deadly military blitz in the West Bank, in defiance of pressure from Washington, on the eve of a peace mission to the region by US Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Four Palestinians, including an eight-year-old boy, were killed by Israeli fire in a refugee camp in the northern West Bank town of Nablus early Saturday, Palestinian hospital sources said.
Seven Palestinians were also wounded in the incident in the Askar refugee camp, the sources said.
The overnight deaths followed one of the deadliest days in more than 18 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Israeli strikes killed at least 24 Palestinians, including a top militant leader, on Friday despite pressure from US President George W. Bush for Israel to halt its military offensive in the West Bank and withdraw its troops.
Israeli officials shrugged off Bush's call, made in a speech broadcast worldwide on Thursday amid global outrage over a siege that has seen Israel retake six of eight major Palestinian towns.
"Bush definitely asked for a withdrawal, but he did not say 'immediate' withdrawal," spokesman Gideon Meir said. He vowed any pullback would come "after having cleaned up the nest of terrorists".
Speculation was rife in the Israeli press that the army would step up the assault and tighten its clampdown on the Palestinians before Powell arrives with a mandate from Bush to try to stop the bloodshed.
In the biggest military strike on Friday, helicopter gunships unleashed a hail of missiles on a building in the West Bank village of Tubas, killing six members of the Islamic militant group Hamas inside, a Palestinian official said.
Among them was Qais Idwan, said to have masterminded the deaths of 26 people in a suicide attack last week now called the "Passover Massacre." Idwan was a top chief in the Hamas armed wing, the Ezzedine Al Qassam Brigades.
Bush largely kept mum on Israel's stepped up raids against Palestinians on Friday, while renewing his sharp criticism of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.
"My worry is that Yasser Arafat can't perform. He's been given plenty of opportunities," Bush told ITV television. "He has let his people down, and there are others in the region who can lead."
Bush welcomed British Prime Minister Tony Blair to his Texas ranch as the heightened Middle East violence pushed possible action against Iraq from atop their weekend summit agenda.
The meeting came a day after Bush ordered Powell to the region from Sunday to pursue an elusive ceasefire.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the top US diplomat had "no plans" to meet with Arafat.
Powell is expected to hold talks with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, Jordan's King Abdullah II, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as well as Sharon on his regional tour.
Fleischer offered a muted answer to reporters seeking a reaction to Israel's decision not only to shrug off Bush's appeal to quit Palestinian territories but step up its offensive against suspected militants.
"The president recognizes that, in a region that's been marred by violence for decades, major events don't necessarily happen overnight," he said. "Obviously, nations in the region are going to digest what he says."
Still, "the president meant what he said and he expects results," Fleischer told reporters. "The timetable is, as soon as possible."
Arafat won a diplomatic lifeline Friday when Israel opened the barricade around his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah to let US envoy Anthony Zinni meet him, but there were few details about the 90-minute talks. Troops threw stun grenades at journalists trying to get to the site.
Later, Palestinian sources reported that the Israeli army had cut off the electricity supply to Arafat's besieged offices in the West Bank town overnight.
Elsewhere, explosions and gunfire were heard coming from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where Palestinian gunmen holed up for a third day ignored calls from the Israeli army besieging the compound to come out.
Four priests inside were evacuated for medical emergencies but otherwise the standoff continued. Hundreds of people were reportedly arrested in the Bethlehem area, including a senior Palestinian intelligence officer.
Anger and violence on the streets in Arab capitals, and the threat to US interests worldwide as Washington tries to hold together its own anti-terror coalition, have followed the Israeli military drive.
Israel has declared closed military areas in many areas, making it impossible to confirm claims by Palestinian officials of more than 100 dead in a week, but large parts of the West Bank have been devastated.
Nearly 1,750 people have died, most of them Palestinians, since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000.
There have been fears of a second front in the conflict after several cross-border attacks from Lebanon in the past few days.
Israeli air and ground forces hit southern Lebanon on Friday, wounding two civilians, after Hezbollah guerrillas attacked Israeli army posts in the disputed Shebaa Farms border area, police said.
Arab states will try to overcome feuds among them and bolster the Palestinians at an emergency meeting in Cairo over the weekend.
Foreign ministers of the 22-member Arab League gathered Friday night for a preparatory meeting to discuss the "explosive situation" in the occupied territories before a full session on Saturday, which was called at the behest of the Palestinians.
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