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2 major militants among 6 Israeli kills

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Palestinians hurl rocks at Israeli border police during a protest against the Israeli security wall in the West Bank town of Aram.

Palestinians hurl rocks at Israeli border police during a protest against the Israeli security wall in the West Bank town of Aram.

Brennan Linsley, Associated Press

NABLUS, West Bank — Israeli troops killed six Palestinian militants, including the most wanted fugitive in the West Bank and a commander of Islamic Jihad, in a raid Saturday, Palestinian officials and witnesses said.

The raid came during a siege that the Israeli military has clamped over the historic old city, or casbah, of Nablus since late Wednesday to crack down on Palestinian militants. A seventh Palestinian was killed in a separate incident in Nablus, the military reported.

The six slain militants were moving around between hiding places in the casbah, which has been under curfew throughout the siege, witnesses said.

Troops killed Nayef Abu Sharkh, a leader in the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, Palestinian security sources said. The sources said Abu Sharkh was Israel's most-wanted militant in the West Bank. Israel Army radio said Abu Sharkh was responsible for a double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed 23 people in January 2003.

Sheik Ibrahim, Islamic Jihad's commander in the West Bank, also was among the dead, hospital officials said. Ibrahim and Abu Sharkh's names were on a leaflet Israel handed out earlier this week asking residents to turn them in.

The other militants killed included Ibrahim's bodyguard and members of the Hamas and Al Aqsa, a violent group loosely linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction.

The army said it had fired machine guns and grenades at a group of suspicious figures who had were hiding in a secret compartment inside a wall.

Israeli soldiers also killed an armed Palestinian in a separate incident in Nablus, which is a center of militant activity, the army said.

Troops have surrounded Nablus' old city with barbed wire and taken over 20 buildings. About 20,000 residents of the neighborhood have been allowed to leave their homes only once, for an hour, since the operation began.

A total of nine Palestinians have died during the Israeli operation in Nablus. Many suicide bombers have originated there and the army said it has uncovered an explosives lab, a suicide bombers' belt and another bomb during the crackdown.

Separately, Israeli border police clashed Saturday with dozens of Palestinians protesting the construction of Israel's West Bank separation barrier in the volatile Jerusalem suburb of Ram.

The violence occurred as a top U.S. envoy was in the region to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and other officials on both sides to build momentum for Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

"I stressed President Bush's determination to do everything that the United States can to help seize the opportunity presented by the Israeli initiative," William Burns, a senior State Department official, said after his meeting with Qureia.

Arafat, meanwhile, called for a cease-fire with Israel during the Aug. 13-29 Olympic games in Greece, but Israel dismissed the offer as insincere.

Arafat issued his call for a halt in violence during a symbolic lighting of an unofficial Olympic torch at his headquarters in Ramallah.

"On the occasion of lighting the Palestinian Olympic torch, I declare our respect and commitment for an Olympic truce," Arafat said.

Burns' visit came days after Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman held separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the terms of Israel's Gaza withdrawal, which is to be completed by the end of 2005.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to evacuate Gaza and four isolated West Bank settlements, which he says will boost Israel's security. Israel refuses to talk directly to the Palestinians and Egypt has stepped in as a mediator.

Under the Egyptian plan, Palestinian militant groups would gather in Cairo in September for a cease-fire declaration. Within eight months, Palestinian security forces would begin collecting illegal weapons.

Burns told reporters after his meeting with Qureia that he had "emphasized the crucial importance of the Palestinian leadership making and implementing the decisions that are required to make a success" of Egypt's efforts.

Burns also stressed that the Gaza pullback should be a step in the "road map" peace plan, which envisions a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.

Qureia warned the Gaza pullout will be "pointless" if it is not part of the road map.

In the protests at Ram, police beat demonstrators and fired rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse the crowd. A police spokesman said some rioters threw an ax, hammers and stones at police.

Dozens of people suffered from tear gas inhalation, and a news photographer was severely beaten. Israeli police said nine people were arrested.

Most residents of the upscale area are Jerusalem residents who left the city to escape overcrowding. When construction of the barrier is complete, some 64,000 people will be cut off from the city.

Israel says the structure of concrete walls, razor wire, fencing and trenches is meant to keep Palestinian suicide bombers and other attackers from entering Israeli towns and cities.

Palestinians are enraged by the structure, which they say is a land grab.