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Five Palestinians Die When Car Explodes; Israeli Army Blamed

By Marjorie Miller
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- JERUSALEM

Five Palestinian gunmen were killed Monday when their car exploded in the Gaza Strip in what Palestinian officials said was a targeted Israeli missile attack and a move to sabotage efforts to broker a cease-fire.

The radical Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine vowed retaliation for the members of its military wing, whose bodies were discovered along with pieces of Kalashnikov rifles.

The deaths followed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s first meeting with high-ranking Palestinian officials since he took office nearly a year ago. Sharon met Wednesday in Jerusalem with Ahmed Korei, who is the speaker of the Palestinian parliament; Mahmoud Abbas, who is Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s unofficial deputy; and Mohammed Rashid, who is Arafat’s financial adviser. The talks were held to search for ways to end the violence that has torn Israel and the Palestinian territories for 16 months.

Sharon is scheduled to meet Thursday with President Bush in Washington and has said he will ask the U.S. government to cut contacts with Arafat.

Israeli army and government officials refused to comment on the incident. Israel Radio reported that its military sources said the men were carrying an explosive device in the car that apparently went off prematurely.

The radio also reported that two of the dead were wanted for an attack late last year on the Israeli army outpost of Marganit in the Gaza Strip in which three soldiers were killed.

Arafat, whom the Israelis have had under siege at his headquarters in Ramallah for two months, accused Sharon of fueling tensions on the ground with targeted killings.

“The Israeli government does not want to calm the situation,” Arafat said. “But it should know that the Palestinian people cannot be shaken or broken.”

The car blew up on a rural road near the Rafah refugee camp, close to the border with Egypt. Witnesses said an unmanned drone reconnaissance plane was flying overhead after the blast.

Palestinian officials said four men were killed when Israeli helicopter gunships fired missiles at the car. A fifth man later died of his injuries.

The Democratic Front, a radical faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, issued a statement that “retaliation will come very soon and will shake the land under the feet of the occupiers.” It is one of the Palestinian groups that have carried out attacks against Israel in recent months.

Palestinians accuse the Israeli government of conducting a state-sponsored assassination campaign. Israel says it is acting in self-defense because the Palestinian Authority will not rein in extremists who attack Israel.

Monday’s explosion followed a predawn Israeli helicopter strike on a Gaza City industrial compound.