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Israeli motorist killed; 2 bombs damage town

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JERUSALEM — An Israeli motorist was killed in a shooting attack and two car bombs blew up in the working class town of Yehud on Monday, a day after three Palestinian militants were killed by missiles fired from an Israeli helicopter.

The violence was the deadliest since a shaky U.S.-brokered cease-fire took effect June 13, raising concern that Washington's mediation were collapsing.

U.N. Middle East envoy Terje Larsen, generally optimistic about peace prospects, was gloomy. "The events of the last couple of days show how fragile the cease-fire is, and all indications are now that it will not hold," Larsen said after meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "It's now incredibly important for all parties concerned to hold back."

The Israeli motorist was near the Arab village of Baka al Gharbieh in Israel, very close to the West Bank, the army said. The victim, a resident of the northern Israeli community of Zichron Yaakov, was outside his car when he was shot.

Even after the truce took effect, Palestinian gunmen persistently targeted Israeli motorists. More than two dozen Israelis have been killed in roadside shootings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in more than nine months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Attacks on motorists in Israel have been rare.

Earlier Monday, two car bombs blew up simultaneously in Yehud in central Israel. The blasts, about 500 yards apart, blew out windows on nearby parked cars and damaged a building, but no one was hurt.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical Palestinian group, claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying the blasts came in revenge for Sunday night's helicopter attack.

An Israeli Cabinet minister, Matan Vilnai, said the explosions would delay the start of the weeklong test period of the truce.

Arafat, meanwhile, said the Sunday night killings of the three Palestinians were a "severe violation of the cease-fire."

The three Palestinians were members of the militant Islamic Jihad group. They were driving in the northern West Bank, near the town of Jenin, in a car packed with explosives, the Israelis said.

Palestinian security officials said the car blew up in a huge explosion and one of the victims was burned beyond recognition.

Israeli officials said the three were apparently preparing an attack in Israel. "Why are three terrorists driving around in a car filled with explosives, if not to blow it up somewhere?" said Israeli Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh.

Palestinian officials accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of trying to undermine the shaky cease-fire with the missile attack, in hopes of avoiding future obligations, such as a freeze of Jewish settlement construction.

According to the international Mitchell Commission, a successful truce is to be followed by confidence-building measures, including a settlement freeze.

"Sharon is very afraid of implementing the Mitchell recommendations, especially freezing the settlements, since this would mean a new start for the region," said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, the secretary general of the Palestinian Cabinet.

One of the three Palestinians killed, Mohammed Besharat, was a senior figure in Islamic Jihad and was on Israel's wanted list, Palestinian and Israeli officials said.

About 5,000 mourners attended Monday's funeral for the three. Abdel Halim Izzedine, an Islamic Jihad leader in Jenin, said his group would no longer observe the truce.

"It shows that the Israelis don't want peace. They don't want negotiations," Izzedine told the crowd chanting "We will destroy the Zionists."

Palestinian officials said Israel already tried to kill Besharat a month ago, using a roadside bomb, but that he escaped unhurt.

Israeli security officials said Besharat had been responsible for a long list of attacks, including sending suicide bombers into Israeli cities and planting car-bombs.