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US Mideast Envoy's Mission Begins Amid Bloody Violence - 2002-03-14

U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni has launched a new mission designed to broker a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians amid a continuing upsurge in violence. At least nine Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers died in fresh fighting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Mr. Zinni arrived and immediately went into meetings with top Israeli security and political officials.

U.S. diplomats say he will hold talks with top Palestinian leaders very soon.

Near the West Bank town of Tulkarm, an Israeli combat helicopter fired missiles that killed a local leader of a Palestinian militant group and another man.

Also near Tulkarm, Israeli and Palestinian sources say a number of Palestinians were arrested by Israeli security forces.

Israeli sources say explosives were found in the Palestinians' vehicle, which was then blown up by the security forces.

Palestinian security sources said earlier those riding in the vehicle had died in the explosion.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah at least five Palestinians were killed before Israel announced it was beginning a withdrawal from the city after its largest military operation in at least 20 years. In the biblical town of Bethlehem, Palestinian gunmen shot dead two suspected collaborators, tying one of the bodies to a truck and dragging it through the streets.

The gunmen tried to hang the body from a building on Manger Square, overlooking the sight where tradition says Jesus was born, but Palestinian police prevented the hanging.

Earlier, three Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza when a powerful explosion went off near their Merkava or chariot tank, considered one of the most heavily armored in the world.

Meanwhile, both Israeli and Palestinian officials say they are ready to negotiate a cease-fire with Mr. Zinni's help, but only if the other side stops fighting.

Israeli government spokesman Raanan Gissin says the time has come for truce talks. "We are willing and trying to establish a cease-fire, and we also welcome General Zinni with his effort to bring about a cease-fire," he said. "But we will have to exercise our right of self-defense, and we will have to continue and take all the necessary military action in order to prevent attacks against our soldiers and against our citizens."

Mr. Zinni has made two previous trips to the Middle East, but his efforts failed to stop the violence.

Since the beginning of this month more than 160 Palestinians and 60 Israelis have been killed in the worst period of bloodshed since the current conflict began in September 2000.