JERUSALEM - Israeli troops shot dead a senior official of the militant group Hamas in the West Bank city of Hebron today, security sources said.

Witnesses said they saw soldiers shoot at a car, killing Hamas militant Abdullah Kawasme. Security sources said troops were attempting to arrest him.

"During an arresting operation in Hebron, an armed Palestinian was shot and killed," the sources said.

Israel pressed the Palestinian Authority Saturday to rein in militant groups led by Hamas and vowed to continue its controversial track-and-kill operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel accuses Kawasme of a series of attacks, including last week's bombing in Jerusalem that killed 17 people. Security sources said Kawasme was one of the army's top wanted militants in the West Bank.

Hamas and other militant groups want to destroy Israel and have resisted calls for a cease fire from the Palestinian leadership.

Following Saturday's shuttle diplomacy by United States Secretary of State Colin Powell to save an internationally backed "road map" to peace, Israel agreed to give the Palestinians three weeks to organise forces for a crackdown on militants, a source in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said.

During the troubleshooting mission to the Middle East Powell called the militant group Hamas an "enemy of peace" and appealed for urgent action to prop up a battered peace plan.

Powell's talks with Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers to save the US-backed "road map" coincided with more bloodshed as a Jewish settler was killed and three people wounded when Palestinian gunmen ambushed their car in the West Bank.

Hamas' military wing said it was responsible for the attack in a statement faxed to media in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The two wounded were elderly US citizens visiting relatives.

Although the eight-hour stint of shuttle diplomacy achieved no breakthroughs, it gave Powell a chance to lean on both sides to fulfil commitments made at a June 4 summit in Jordan with US President George W Bush.

Since then, more than 60 people have been killed on both sides, imperilling the most ambitious US peace initiative since the start of a Palestinian uprising against Israel for independence in September 2000.

Powell, who met first Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem, pressed Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas not just to reach a ceasefire deal with Hamas and other militant groups but to eliminate their capacity to attack Israelis.

But he made clear the road map also depended on restraint by Israel, whose right-wing government accepted the plan only under heavy US pressure. He said Israel needed to take steps to "ease the daily plight of the Palestinian people".

Powell urged the two sides to speed up efforts to reach a deal for an Israeli troop pullback in the northern Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Bethlehem as proving grounds for Palestinians to assume security control. Security sources reported progress in the latest negotiations.

"We have to move urgently," Powell told reporters after talks with Abbas in the West Bank town of Jericho. "We don't want time to pass without action taking place... We don't want terrorists to win."

Abbas' efforts to nudge powerful militant factions into a ceasefire have been fruitless so far. Hamas and smaller factions have rejected the notion unless Israel ends military action.

"The enemy of peace has been Hamas, especially over the last two weeks," Powell told a joint news conference with Sharon. "As long as they have... a commitment to terror and violence and a desire to destroy the state of Israel, I think this is a problem we have to deal with in its entirety."

Abbas later told reporters his ceasefire efforts would come to nothing unless Israel halted its military incursions and blockades in Palestinian areas.

Powell, who vowed that the United States would "blast through" those behind the latest violence, dismissed as totally inadequate efforts by Syria to rein in militant groups with offices in Damascus. Hamas is headquartered there.

Senior Hamas official Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi, who was wounded in an Israeli missile strike in Gaza last week, said in response: "Colin Powell proved that he is a real slave to the Zionists, a liar and a hypocrite."

The radical Islamic group, sworn to Israel's destruction, claimed responsibility for a Jerusalem bus bombing that killed 17 people last week after Israel's failed attempt on Rantissi's life. The bombing was followed by a series of Israeli air strikes that killed six militants and 24 civilians.

Hamas and other militant factions fiercely oppose the road map's call for an end to violence and reciprocal confidence building steps leading to a Palestinian state by 2005.

- REUTERS

Herald Feature: The Middle East

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