New violence, setbacks in Mideast

At least three killed in Israeli raid in Nablus

church talks at impasse


JERUSALEM - As Israel and the Palestinians expressed cautious support for a peace conference announced by the Bush administration, Israeli soldiers launched a raid yesterday into the center of Nablus.

An Israeli officer and at least two Palestinians were killed.

The raid underscored that Israeli military operations in the West Bank have not ended.

In Bethlehem, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators remained deadlocked over the siege at the Church of the Nativity.

Yasser Arafat said yesterday in his compound in Ramallah that he was awaiting details about the proposed conference and planned to talk with other Arab leaders about Palestinian participation.

"It is an idea that we welcome, but nothing was agreed upon," Arafat said. "We will consult with all our brother Arab leaders regarding this conference before it convenes."

In Israel, Dore Gold, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Sharon planned to discuss the conference with President Bush when they meet next week. He noted that Sharon pitched the idea of talks to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell last month.

"Prime Minister Sharon originally proposed a regional conference that would draw together like-minded states that advocate peace and oppose terrorism, and would seek to establish common ground on a variety of regional issues," Gold said. "The two leaders will have to talk next week and compare notes about what the concept of the conference will be."

Much about the conference, which the Bush administration unexpectedly unveiled Thursday, remains unresolved, including its goals and topics of discussion.

But officials in Washington have emphasized that it would be a meeting of foreign ministers, not heads of state, a plan that seemed intended to sidestep Sharon's refusal to negotiate with Arafat because of Israel's belief that he sponsors terrorism.

Palestinians said Israeli tanks and armored vehicles arrived in Nablus at 3 a.m. yesterday and headed for a row of storefronts outside the casbah, the ancient marketplace that was the scene of heavy fighting in April. At least 75 people were killed last month during an Israeli incursion there.

Two tanks and scores of soldiers surrounded an ornate stone building, according to Ali, a Palestinian who lives nearby and refused give his full name.

After soldiers shouted "Open the door!" and ran into a building, bursts of gunfire were heard, followed by grenade explosions, witnesses said.

"I saw one soldier on the ground," Ali said. "He wasn't moving at all."

Ali said the Israelis eventually fired a tank round into the building's second floor, silencing the gunfire. An armored bulldozer demolished the building.

The Israeli military said Maj. Aviyahu Yaacov, 24, was killed, another officer was seriously wounded, and a third soldier was slightly wounded. One Palestinian militant was killed in the raid, and at least four suspected militants were captured.

Yesterday afternoon, two young men who identified themselves as student members of Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, said Israelis had killed Ali Hodairy, a 24-year-old Hamas leader. The Israeli military said Hodairy was a bomb-maker.

A Palestinian policeman was also killed, residents said.

At the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where about 160 people are besieged and food is said to have run out two weeks ago, once-promising negotiations reached a new impasse.

Palestinian negotiators said yesterday afternoon that they had reached a deal with the Israelis to allow food into the compound. But the agreement broke down, they said, when the Israelis said food could enter only if the Palestinians provided a roster of the people in the compound.

The only agreement the two sides were able to reach yesterday was on the evacuation of four ill Palestinian men.

Hanna Nasser, Bethlehem's mayor and a member of the Palestinian negotiation team, said he was angry about the breakdown, charging that the Israelis had further eroded trust. He said that if the two sides could not get past discussions of food, they would not be able to agree on the more difficult matter of a settlement to end the siege, entering its second month.

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