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U.N. Chief Criticizes Israeli, Palestinian Leaders

Annan, speaking at an open meeting of the U.N. Security Council, leveled some of the harshest comments he has ever directed against the Israeli government.

“To the Israelis I say: You have the right to live in peace and security within secure internationally recognized borders. But you must end the illegal occupation [of the West Bank and Gaza Strip],” Annan said. “More urgently, you must stop the bombing of civilian areas, the assassinations, the unnecessary use of lethal force, the demolitions, and the daily humiliation of ordinary Palestinians.”

Annan called on both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to choose the way toward a political settlement.

“You can still lead your people away from disaster. Today, more than ever, you must recognize that security and a political settlement are indivisible. One cannot exist without the other,” Annan told the council. “The alternative, for both sides, is continued bloodshed – delaying even further the prospects for an end to the occupation and the violence.”

As Annan was speaking in New York, violence continued to rage in the Middle East.

In what many say is the largest Israeli military action in 20 years, Ariel Sharon’s forces swept through parts of Gaza and the West Bank town of Ramallah. The troops, sent to find and destroy so-called “terrorist infrastructure”, met stiff resistance.

In separate battles, more than 30 Palestinians were killed in clashes and nearly 100 wounded.

Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli army’s chief of staff, told the Knesset Tuesday that the military now had more than 20,000 troops in action in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Heavy tanks and infantry units moved into Ramallah, taking up position just yards from Arafat’s headquarters. The move came only a day after Sharon said he was lifting the virtual house arrest of Arafat.

Meanwhile, a number of gunmen disguised as Israeli soldiers opened fire on passing motorists, killing six and wounding another six in northern Israel.

The gunmen, reportedly Palestinian militants, started firing at cars and trucks just south of Israel’s border with Lebanon. Israeli forces, backed by helicopter gunships, moved in quickly to engage the assailants.

During a 40-minute gunbattle, at least two of the attackers were killed. Israeli officials said they could not discount the reports that as many as three others may have escaped.

A shepherd, two truck drivers, and a mother and her daughter were among the dead, according to police sources. Rescue officials also said two others were moderately wounded and four lightly.

Lebanese officials quickly said the attackers had not come over the border to launch the attack.

“There is a U.N. presence in the [border] area and the United Nations must determine the source of gunfire,” Lebanese Defense Minister Khalil Hrawi said in a television interview.

Israeli officials said the attack was meant to spread unrest to a border area that has remained relatively quiet during the recent violence.

“We will not allow any kind of escalation,” Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said. “At the same time, we’ll pursue the terrorists and those who perpetrated this act and we’ll be able to strike at them with impunity.”

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