Israeli troops backed by tanks and helicopters are besieging a prison in the West Bank city of Jericho. Israeli officials say the operation is designed to capture the leader of a Palestinian militant group responsible for the assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister in 2001. The action touched off clashes between protesters and police in the Gaza Strip.
The large military operation began early Tuesday and is continuing as bulldozers are demolishing parts of the prison.

Israeli troops are demanding that Ahmed Saadat the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine turn himself and several colleagues over to Israeli authorities. The Palestinian militant has refused the ultimatum vowing not to be taken alive. 

Gidom Ezra, Israel's interim security minister says the operation was approved by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Ezra says the decision to try and capture Saadat and other militants was taken after Palestinian authorities, including President Mahmoud Abbas, said they were prepared to release the militants. 

The P.F.L.P. claimed responsibility for the killing of Rahavam Zeevi, Israel's tourism minister, in 2001. 

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cut short a trip to Europe to return to the Palestinian territories to deal with the crisis.   Earlier Mr. Abbas blamed the withdrawal of British and U.S. monitors from the prison grounds early Tuesday for the Israeli action. 

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw rejected the criticism, saying British authorities had no advance knowledge of the Israeli action, and that British authorities had warned Mr. Abbas' office four times in the past few days that they planned to withdraw their monitors from the prison because of security problems at the prison.  It is not clear if there were any U.S. monitors at the prison on Tuesday.  Ahmed Saadat was being held at the prison under an international agreement that stipulated he be guarded by international monitors. 

Hamas prime minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh also criticized the Israeli action saying it was a get-tough measure by Israel's acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, designed to help him win upcoming elections.

Haniyeh says Palestinian blood is being shed to help Israeli politicians win elections, and he warned Israeli officials they will suffer consequences if Ahmed Saadat is harmed.

Meanwhile protesters in Gaza set fire to a building housing the offices of the British Council and there were protests elsewhere in the Palestinian territories.  A bus evacuating westerners from the Gaza Strip was fired on but no injuries were reported.  The French Foreign Ministry also confirmed that two French nationals were kidnapped in the Gaza Strip shortly after a Red Cross official, believed to be from Switzerland, was abducted.  Other abductions of foreigners in the Palestinian territories were also reported on Tuesday.