NABLUS, West Bank - Israeli forces on Sunday ended their deadliest raid in the West Bank for months after killing the West Bank commander of a militant group within Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie, also of Fatah, said Israel committed a brutal and ugly crime in Nablus, a militant stronghold. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the operation another impressive achievement against terrorism.

There have been no Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel since March. Israel says a West Bank barrier built with the declared aim of stopping bombers, attacks targeting top militants and raids to detain suspects have proved effective.

In the latest operation, Israeli soldiers uncovered a hideout in a Nablus house on Saturday, killing Nayef Abu Sharkh, head of Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the West Bank -- and Israel's most-wanted man in the area -- and five other gunmen.

The dead included the local commanders of two other militant groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Three Palestinians were killed in separate incidents earlier in Nablus.

The brigades, whose militants have carried out dozens of suicide bombings and attacks against Israelis in a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000, promised in a statement unprecedented retaliation -- "like an earthquake".

Firing into the air, dozens of gunmen marched with thousands of other mourners in funeral processions for the militant leaders after Israeli forces pulled out of Nablus' casbah, a warren of ancient streets raided on Wednesday.

"The army managed to assassinate our comrades yesterday, but we are here to continue their path of resistance until the occupation forces leave our city," one militant said as cries for revenge echoed from loudspeakers on dozens of mosques.

The army commander who led the raid on the gunmen's hideout said Israel launched the Nablus sweep -- codenamed "Full Court Press", an aggressive defence in basketball terminology -- after preventing a Jerusalem bombing last week planned by Nablus-based militants.

It was not immediately clear how the army found the shelter. Palestinians say Israel runs a network of informers in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli troops last month raided the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza, killing about 44 Palestinians, but have not pushed into West Bank towns with significant force since April.

The Nablus violence overshadowed a visit by US Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, who urged both sides to fulfil commitments and take advantage of the "moment of opportunity" offered by Sharon's Gaza pullout plan.

Sharon has won cabinet support in principle for his Gaza plan, which calls for the gradual evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and another four hard-to-defend enclaves in the West Bank.

A second vote is necessary before any of the settlements, built on land Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, are uprooted. Sharon included in the Gaza plan a pledge to hold on to parts of the West Bank permanently.

- REUTERS

Herald Feature: The Middle East

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