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Israel Steps up offensive in West Bank Territory

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RAMALLAH, West Bank - Israeli forces killed eight Palestinians, including two policemen early today, during their latest incursion into Palestinian territory, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed to wage a "massive campaign" against Islamic extremists in Gaza.

The two Palestinian policemen were killed when Israeli troops stormed the Palestinian government headquarters in the West Bank city of Hebron, Palestinian security officials said. Eight other policemen were wounded.

The Israeli military said soldiers entered Hebron to operate against the "terrorist infrastructure" there. A military statement said a "large number" of suspects had been arrested. Also, soldiers said they discovered an explosives laboratory.

Residents said soldiers declared a curfew over the city.

Six other Palestinians were killed by helicopter missile strikes yesterday, including four members of the militant group Hamas, the group said. Israel said a senior Hamas activist was among those killed.

Israeli troops encircled Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Ramallah headquarters early yesterday for the third time this month.

The latest turmoil came as President Bush called for a new Palestinian leadership - one "not compromised by terror" - and set stiff conditions for a Palestinians state.

Sharon echoed Bush's call for new leadership, but Arafat aide Saeb Erekat said the demand was "not acceptable." Arafat himself welcomed Bush's ideas as a "serious effort to push the peace process forward" in a statement that ignored the call for a leadership change.

As progress is made on security matters, Bush said, Israel should remove its forces from West Bank areas under Palestinian control before violence erupted in September 2000. Israeli forces now control six of the eight main Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank: Jenin, Nablus, Qalqiliya, Ramallah, Tulkarem and Bethlehem. Hebron could be the seventh, leaving just Jericho.

At least 600,000 Palestinians in the West Bank are confined to their homes by army curfews. Restrictions were briefly lifted in Nablus and Qalqiliya so residents could shop and go to school.

A major six-week military offensive earlier this year aimed at wiping out militias behind terror attacks also focused on the West Bank, leaving the Gaza Strip - where top militia leaders are based - largely unscathed. This time, Sharon warned that Gaza would not be spared.

"We are preparing massive activity against Hamas in the Strip," Sharon said, adding that it had begun with the Israeli helicopter missile strikes on two cars yesterday in the southern Gaza Strip.



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