Palestinians wound Israelis in attack


JERUSALEM, Reuters

Palestinians fired mortar bombs at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, wounding at least five settlers, the Israeli army said.

The attacks, apparently aimed at avenging four Palestinian fighters killed in a bomb blast on Thursday, occurred a day before Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was due to fly to Cairo and Amman for talks on an Egyptian-Jordanian peace plan.

An army spokeswoman said mortar rounds hit a youth center in Netzer Hazani, part of the Gush Katif settlement bloc in the southern Gaza Strip in the afternoon, wounding at least five people, one of them seriously.

Army radio, reporting from an Israeli hospital where the casualties were being treated, said all five were teenagers.

Palestinian security officials said they were checking the report.

The attack followed two mortar strikes overnight against the Jewish settlements of Kfar Darom and Nisanit in the Gaza Strip. Soldiers returning fire wounded two Palestinians. No Israeli casualties were reported in the nocturnal firing.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction said it had fired mortars to avenge the “terrible massacre” of the four fighters killed by what Palestinians say was an Israeli remote controlled bomb. It threatened more such attacks.

Israel has denied planting the bomb.

“This is the first step of our reactions to the Israeli aggression and will be followed by more,” Fatah said, adding that it had temporarily halted mortar attacks earlier at the request of the Palestinian leadership. In Israel, a Palestinian youth stabbed and seriously wounded a Rumanian migrant laborer in a shared taxi in an attack Israeli police said had “nationalistic” motives.

The military wing of the Hamas movement claimed a roadside bomb that wounded two Israelis near Gush Katif on Friday, saying it was revenge for the explosion that killed the Fatah men.

“This operation came as our reaction to the Israeli policy of assassination against our people and the assassination of the Fatah activists recently in Rafah,” it said in a statement.

Fatah and Hamas were once at bitter odds, but nationalist and Islamic groups have drawn closer since the Palestinian Intifada against Israeli occupation erupted last September after peace negotiations stalled.

Recently armed groups have sprung up in Gaza in which militants from Fatah, Hamas and the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine fight alongside each other.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana was due to hold talks with Arafat late on Saturday at the start of a three-day mission to the region aimed at energizing diplomatic efforts to end the fighting and resume negotiations.

Peres will travel to Washington next week for talks with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Senior Palestinian Authority official Faisal Husseini plans to travel to Washington next week, the first visit by a prominent Palestinian since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took power in March, but he was not expected to meet Powell.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak cut short a visit to Moscow on Saturday to fly home a few hours earlier than planned, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said. No explanation was given.

Mubarak concluded his three-day visit in Moscow by meeting Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who, like President Vladimir Putin earlier, offered support for the Egyptian-Jordanian initiative.

The plan, which calls for an end to violence, includes measures to build confidence and a return to the negotiating table, has drawn cautious interest from the United States.

However, a huge gulf separates the two sides and senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has said Israel would torpedo the initiative if it tried to introduce any changes.

Erekat was due to hold talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa in Cairo later in the day, Egyptian officials said.