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Palestinians arrest 2 officials in arms case

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RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian police have detained two senior Palestinian officials suspected of trying to smuggle a boatload of arms into Gaza, Palestinian security sources said.

Israel dismissed the move as insufficient. Hours later, Israeli missile boats opened fire on Palestinian naval targets in Gaza, setting a fuel depot and a barracks on fire, Palestinian security sources said. A small patrol boat was also hit.

The barracks had been abandoned and there were no immediate reports of casualties.

The Israeli army had no immediate comment.

The seizure of the ship smuggling 50 tons of arms last week came after four weeks of relative calm and again put Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the defensive with the United States demanding an explanation about the arms ship.

The ship's captain said in jailhouse interviews that he loaded the arms in Iran and that the weapons were destined for Gaza.

Israel has blamed the Palestinian Authority and Arafat, saying they were behind the shipment of arms, which included rockets, explosives and anti-tank missiles forbidden under Israeli-Palestinian accords.

But the Palestinian Authority continues to insist it had no connection to the weapons.

"The Palestinian leadership emphasizes that it does not have any information about the ship issue," the Palestinian Authority said in a statement. The suspects were detained based on information received from international sources, the statement said.

The two men detained were identified as Fuad Shobaki and Adel Mughraby. Israel says Shobaki is a senior official who authorized payments for the ship and the arms. A third official, Fathi Razim, deputy commander of the Palestinian Authority's navy, was being sought by Palestinian security forces.

Israel dismissed the move — as it has done with recent Palestinian efforts to enforce a cease-fire — as insufficient.

"The arrest of certain senior members of the PA ... is an attempt by Yasser Arafat to exonerate himself," said Raanan Gissin, spokesman of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "The real issue is ... dismantling the terrorist infrastructure and stopping altogether the smuggling of illegal weapons."

A senior Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration hopes the detentions mark the beginning of a serious effort.

Israeli intelligence officials briefed the Bush administration about the smuggling attempt earlier this week.

"The information we are receiving and developing on our own makes it clear that there are linkages to the Palestinian Authority," Secretary of State Colin Powell said.

Powell did not link Arafat to the operation, but also did not accept Arafat's disavowal, insisting on an explanation and arrests. On Thursday, Ron Schlicher, the U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem, met with Arafat.

"He understood the seriousness that we attach to it, and did say that he was looking into it, and would get us more information," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Hassan Abdel Rahman, the Palestinian Liberation Organization's chief U.S. representative, on Friday dismissed as "absurd" Israel's accusation that Arafat was directly involved in the foiled plot to smuggle in the arms.

Israel intercepted the weapons in the Red Sea on Jan. 3, after several weeks in which Israeli-Palestinian violence was markedly down.

But tensions are rising again.

At about the same time that the missile boats were striking targets, Israeli tanks fired at least four shells, striking homes in the Rafah refugee camp and injuring at least eight people, including two women, Palestinian security sources said. The Israeli army said it was checking the report.

EarlierWZFriday, Israeli bulldozers tore up the runway of the Palestinians' international airport, a day after dozens of homes were razed in an Israeli raid of the Palestinian refugee camp in Rafah.

The operations were reprisals for a deadly assault on Israeli troops, and the military warned of further action if Palestinians did not stop attacks on Israelis.

U.N. officials said Friday that 54 homes were destroyed and 511 people left homeless in the incursion into the Rafah camp, which had been home to Islamic militants who killed four Israeli soldiers on Wednesday.

Israeli military officials said 10 buildings were demolished and that they served as cover for Palestinian gunmen and smugglers. Asked about the U.N. contentions, the army spokesman's office had no additional comment Friday.

The week's violence began when two Islamic militants, members of the Hamas group, killed four Israeli soldiers Wednesday in an assault on an army post near Gaza.

Arafat condemned the attack by Hamas. But Israel held Arafat responsible, saying he is not serious about cracking down against militants.

Also Friday, a Palestinian and an Israeli were seriously wounded in separate incidents in the West Bank town of Hebron and in Jerusalem. Israeli forces also detained 11 Palestinians, meanwhile — eight suspected of weapons smuggling and three suspected militants, the army said.

Despite the escalation, President Bush said Thursday that he would send American mediator Anthony Zinni to the region for a third time.

Palestinian officials have said Zinni was to return Jan. 18.