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Militants reject Abbas's call for peace; Israel launches strikes

GAZA CITY -- The Islamic Jihad militant group rejected a call yesterday from Mahmoud Abbas to halt rocket attacks on Israeli towns, dealing a new blow to the Palestinian leader and prompting a new round of Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli air force said it carried out an airstrike early today against a training base belonging to a Palestinian militant group in Lebanon, hours after a northern Israeli town was hit by rocket fire.

It was the deepest Israel has struck inside Lebanon since June 2004.

The army said the base, located south of Beirut, belonged to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a small militant group waging a decades-long fight against the Jewish state.

''This is in response to the firing of projectile rockets last night toward Israeli communities," the army said.

It said it views such attacks with ''extreme severity" and holds Lebanon responsible.

In another setback for Abbas, a last-minute dispute within his ruling Fatah Party threatened to divide the movement before today's key election deadline.

The dispute between Fatah veterans and its ''young guard" was the latest sign of disarray in the party, which faces a stiff challenge from the Islamic group Hamas in Jan. 25 parliamentary voting.

Abbas traveled to Gaza yesterday for talks with the militant groups, in part to halt growing violence along Israel's border with Gaza. Israel has pressured Abbas to stop militants from firing rockets.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, a participant in the meeting, said Abbas urged all Palestinian groups to honor a cease-fire reached with Israel in February.

''We demand everyone be committed to the truce," Erekat said. ''We consider the truce a matter of high national interest."

But Islamic Jihad, which has been responsible for most of the rocket fire, rejected the appeal. Spokesman Khaled Batch accused Israel of violating the cease-fire, and said attacks were the only proper response. ''I think the continuation of resistance is what's better for the Palestinian people," he said.

New rocket fire was reported in southern Israel late yesterday, and the army quickly responded with an airstrike on a suspected launch site in northern Gaza. There were no reports of injuries.

Since Israel's withdrawal in September from the Gaza Strip, militants have continued to fire homemade rockets into southern Israel. Although the rockets are notoriously inaccurate, more Israeli towns, including the city of Ashkelon, are in rocket range now that Israel is out of Gaza. Israel has responded with numerous airstrikes on suspected launch sites in northern Gaza.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has approved a buffer zone in northern Gaza, although the army said it has not yet implemented the plan, which includes firing on anyone who enters the area.

Late yesterday, the Israeli air force dropped leaflets into northern Gaza, warning residents to stay out of areas used by militants to fire rockets.

''Presence in areas used for projectile rocket launching puts your life in danger," the leaflet said.

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