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Palestinian Militants Killed, U.S. Envoy Meets With Arafat

Oeis Odwan, one of the militants killed in Friday’s violence, is the man Israeli officials believe masterminded the March 27 hotel suicide bombing that killed 26 people and prompted the current military offensive, Israeli TV reported. Odwan was killed with five other members of the Islamic militant group Hamas when Israeli forces took over the town of Tubas today.

At least 22 Palestinians were killed Friday, including a 14-year-old girl who was watching the fighting from her window in Tubas. The 20,000-person town is the seventh city Israeli troops have occupied in the last week. Of the West Bank’s major towns, only Jericho remains under Palestinian control.

Israeli forces have arrested as many as 1,000 Palestinians, reports said.

A standoff between Israeli troops and 200 Palestinian militiamen and police officers continued at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born. The Israeli army helped four priests escape from the church today, but said they believed the Palestinians inside included senior terrorism suspects on Israel’s wanted list.

Despite President Bush’s speech yesterday, which called for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, Ariel Sharon gave no overt signal that “Operation Defensive Shield” was coming to a close.

While the military moves continued, Zinni and Arafat met for 90 minutes at the Palestinian leader’s besieged headquarters in Ramallah.

Arafat told Zinni the Palestinians support the cease-fire deal negotiated last year by CIA chief George Tenet, Zinni’s deputy Mahmoud Abbas told reporters.

Israel had previously refused to allow any foreign diplomats access to Arafat, saying they wanted to keep him “isolated.” There were also conflicting reports of whether Israeli officials would allow Zinni further contact with the Palestinian leader.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to arrive in the region next week. A spokesman said the secretary is expected to see the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and try to meet with Arafat.

Meanwhile, tensions remained high between Israel and neighboring Lebanon, with both sides exchanging fire Friday. Israeli jets rocketed Lebanese border towns after Hizbollah guerrillas fired rockets and anti-tank missiles at Israeli posts along the border between Lebanon, Israel and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. At least two people were injured during the exchanges.

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