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Three Israeli soldiers die in ambush

Israel likely to enter Ramallah as result, news media reports

EIN YABRUD, West Bank -- Palestinian gunmen ambushed an Israeli army patrol in a West Bank town after sundown yesterday, killing three soldiers, Israeli security sources and rescue service officials said. It was the most serious attack in the area in about a year and a half.

The deadly attack occurred a few hours after Palestinians in Gaza fired rockets at Israeli towns, and Israeli forces wound up a phase of a wide-ranging operation in a Palestinian refugee camp on the Egyptian border.

Security sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said gunmen ambushed an Israeli army foot patrol in the Palestinian village of Ein Yabrud, east of the West Bank town of Ramallah. Three soldiers were killed, and one was seriously wounded, they said.

A spokesman for the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, loosely linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, said its members carried out the ambush.

"A group of our fighters attacked an Israeli patrol in Ein Yabrud, killing and injuring many soldiers," he said by telephone.

The area has been the scene of frequent Palestinian gunfire attacks against Israeli military and civilian vehicles.

Israel TV said that because of the severity of the attack, Israeli forces were likely to enter Ramallah, where Arafat has been trapped in his headquarters for nearly two years.

Israel Radio reported that soldiers imposed a curfew on Ein Yabrud and were searching for the attackers, who escaped.

The last serious attack of its kind in the area was in February 2002, when four Palestinian gunmen opened fire on an Israeli military checkpoint at nearby Ein Arik, killing six soldiers before escaping.

Earlier yesterday, Palestinian militants fired homemade rockets from Gaza into Israel, one of the largest salvos in months.

No one was hurt in the barrage of Qassam rockets, relatively small and primitive weapons. Three exploded in the town of Sderot, a frequent target less than a mile from the Gaza border wall, and others hit near smaller communities, the military said.

Palestinian militants make the rockets in Gaza workshops. They have a range of about 5 miles. No one has been killed in the attacks, and Sderot residents and officials have called on the government to take action to stop the salvos.

In the past, similar rocket attacks have prompted Israeli military reprisals. An army spokesman declined to discuss plans for an Israeli response, but said the military is always prepared to defend its citizens.

The military said that last week, militants fired nine Qassam rockets, but only three landed in Israel, causing no damage or casualties.

Also yesterday, Israeli forces wound up another phase of a large-scale operation in Gaza, near the Egyptian border.

After pulling out of the so-called Brazil section of the sprawling Rafah refugee camp following a four-day sweep, troops continued to operate in other parts of the border area. The troops and tanks redeployed along the Egyptian border, just a few hundred yards from the camp, witnesses said.

Israel launched its broadest military operation in six months in the Rafah area of Gaza on Oct. 10, six days after an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing in a Haifa restaurant killed 21 people.

Israel says the operation aims to uncover and destroy tunnels, some with entrances hidden in homes, that the military says the Palestinians use to smuggle arms from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. The military has said it has intelligence warnings that the Palestinians might be trying to smuggle more advanced weapons, such as antiaircraft missiles.

Soldiers moved into the Brazil camp last Thursday, the third part of the camp to be targeted. Troops demolished at least 15 homes, killing four gunmen and four bystanders, witnesses said. In the entire Rafah operation, 14 Palestinians, including two children, have been killed.

About 114 homes were destroyed at the start of the Rafah military operation, leaving some 1,240 Palestinians homeless, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency, which aids Palestinian refugees.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz of Israel told the Cabinet yesterday that troops had so far found four tunnels during the operation and that the raid would continue until the others are uncovered, a senior government official who was at the meeting said.

Also yesterday, Israel's army used emergency orders to call up five reserve battalions, about 1,800 soldiers, to replace soldiers serving in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Call-ups on such short notice are unusual. Israel Radio said the reason was an increase in intelligence warnings of terror attacks.

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