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Helicopters attack Arafat party offices

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RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israeli helicopters fired missiles into offices of Yasser Arafat's Fatah Party in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Saturday, casting further doubt on the possibility of a meeting between the Palestinian leader and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

No one was injured in the attack in a residential area in the center of the city. Palestinians said the target was Muhammed Mansour, a Fatah leader in Ramallah who left the building minutes before the three missiles hit.

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian police said a 13-year-old Palestinian boy was killed by Israeli gunfire in Rafah. The Israeli army said it was not aware of any shooting by troops in the area.

Earlier in the day, a Palestinian was killed and another seriously injured in an explosion in the yard of a Gaza Strip building used by the Tanzim militia. Palestinians blamed Israel, but the Israeli army said it knew nothing about the blast.

The Palestinians said the attack cast doubt on Israel's desire to bring together Arafat and Peres. Both sides had been trying to work out a meeting and Peres said one would happen next week in the region. No time or date had been set.

However, Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said Saturday's missile attack "will destroy the aims of this meeting before it's even held."

"It seems that Sharon is very much interested in continuing the cycle of violence and war against the Palestinian people," Abed Rabbo added.

Israel said the strike in Ramallah was retaliation for several shootings in the West Bank by gunmen associated with Fatah, including one Thursday that killed a soldier and seriously injured another. Israel says Fatah is behind many deadly attacks on Israelis.

Fatah employees meeting with Mansour in the eight-floor building said they heard helicopters flying overhead before the strike.

"I was still inside when I heard some helicopters flying very close to the building," said Carlos Zaghlool. "One missile entered the room." Uninjured, Zaghlool managed to get out of the smoke-filled offices through the bathroom window.

An entire floor belonging to the Fatah movement was damaged but other offices in the structure were not damaged.

Dozens of Palestinians demonstrated in Ramallah after the attack, calling for revenge.

"Our response will be faster and more painful than Israelis can imagine," said Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Tanzim militia affiliated with Fatah. Peres had said earlier this week that the first of three meetings with Arafat would take place in coming days, probably at the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip. But Palestinian officials say Arafat wants to wait for a gathering of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on Sunday before making a decision on talks with Peres.

Sharon said in an interview in Saturday's New York Times that he was skeptical that a Peres-Arafat meeting would be successful.

"Peres believes that he can influence Arafat to stop firing," he said in English. "I have doubts about that. But I told him, 'If you can do that, of course it's a good thing to meet.' "

The Palestinian leadership said in a statement Friday that any talks on a truce would have to include negotiations for the renewal of more comprehensive peace talks.

Sharon has said he will not allow peace talks to be included in discussions on a cease-fire.

In other violence Saturday, Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers traded intense gunfire in the center of the West Bank city of Hebron. One tank fired a shell in the area in response to heavy firing at troops, the army said.

In the more than 11 months of fighting, 608 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 165 on the Israeli side.