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Israeli Police Storm Muslim Holy Site in Tense Standoff with Palestinian Worshippers - 2004-04-02

Israeli police stormed a Muslim holy site in Jerusalem's walled Old City Friday after Palestinian youths and worshippers threw stones at police. At least 15 people are reported injured and more than a dozen others arrested.

Police in riot gear stormed the al-Aqsa mosque compound, firing tear gas, stun grenades and plastic bullets to disperse a crowd of hundreds of stone throwers.

A tense standoff followed as worshippers and some of the stone throwers barricaded themselves inside the mosques when police surrounded the area and closed off access. After a few hours, police and the Muslim authorities responsible for the mosque compound negotiated a peaceful outcome. Police stood back and worshippers were allowed to go home.

The compound is home to the al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques and is one of Islam's holiest sites. The same site is sacred to Jews as the Temple Mount.

The current round of Israeli-Palestinian violence began here in September of 2000 following a controversial visit to the compound by then opposition leader, now Prime Minster, Ariel Sharon.

The area has been the scene of frequent clashes since then and police often restrict access to the al-Aqsa mosque compound for public Friday prayers in an attempt to avert violence.

Israeli security forces are on heightened alert for possible unrest, especially over next week's Jewish holiday of Passover. The West Bank and Gaza Strip remain under a general closure during the holiday.

A state of alert during Jewish holidays is not unusual, but authorities say there is the added risk now of revenge attacks by Palestinian militants after last week's assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in an Israeli missile strike in Gaza.