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Palestine Authority Arrest 5 For Diplomat Killings

Palestinians Overwhelmingly Condemn Gaza Anti-US Blast

Palestinian leadership, President Yasser Arafat, PM Ahmad Qurei, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, condemned the Gaza bomb blast that killed three US nationals on Wednesday.

Al-Jazeera satellite TV station early Thursday reported that Palestinian police arrested three suspects.

Then AP reported that Palestinian police arrested five people in connection with a deadly attack on a US diplomatic convoy, security officials said. Witnesses said a gunfight erupted during the raid.

The five were arrested in the Jebaliya refugee camp, which is near the site of Wednesday's attack. One of those arrested was identified as Ahmed Saker, 25, AP said.

In a strongly - worded statement on Wednesday Arafat condemned “the crime of targeting US monitors who are doing their mission of security and peace.”

President Arafat ordered the formation of “a joint investigation committee with the American side and the Quartet” of international Middle East mediators.

Earlier the Palestinian leadership in a statement condemned the “criminal explosion” in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahya, which on Wednesday claimed the lives of three US nationals.

The leadership conveyed its condolences to US President George W. Bush, his administration and the families of the innocent victims, while noting at the same time that the place of the crime has seen several Israeli reoccupation operations, which included the planting of land mines by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF).

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Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei (Abu Ala) on Wednesday telephoned US Secretary of State Colin Powell and conveyed his condolences in the name of President Arafat, the Cabinet, the Palestine National Authority (PNA), and the Palestinian people.

Similarly all Palestinian factions that are struggling against the Israeli 36-year old occupation condemned the crime and denied their involvement in it.

Late Wednesday the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees denied any role in the deadly bombing of a US diplomatic convoy in Gaza that was earlier claimed in its name by an anonymous caller.

"The Popular Resistance Committees in Palestine deny any involvement in this incident. We consider our fight to be solely with the Zionist enemy and we do not want to be involved in controversial secondary issues," the group said Wednesday in a statement sent to AFP in Gaza City.

A telephone caller to AFP claiming to represent the Popular Resistance Committees said earlier that the bombing was carried out by the group.

US asks for Palestinian cooperation

The United States has asked for Palestinian cooperation in apprehending the suspected bombers.

On Wednesday morning, an allegedly powerful, remote-controlled bomb sent an armor-plated American van flying into the air, a few minutes after it entered Gaza from Israel.

The blast smashed the vehicle, flipped it over and left a crater in the road, the main north-south highway in Gaza. Two of the guards inside were killed instantly, said US Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer. Another died on the way to a Gaza hospital. A fourth was treated in Gaza, then flown to a hospital in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, where he was in stable condition, Kurtzer said.

Kurtzer said US officials had made two requests of the Palestinian leadership: "First, that the Palestinian Authority assist in apprehending those responsible; and second, that the Palestinian Authority assist us in the investigation of this horrible terrorist act."

US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher identified the three Americans killed as John Branchizio, 36; Mark T. Parson, 31; and John Martin Linde Jr., 30.

Boucher said they had been hired through a contract with DynCorp, a Virginia-based security firm. "They are not outsiders, they are part of our team," he said.

US officials said diplomats in the convoy, escorted by Palestinian police, were heading to Gaza to interview Palestinian academics, who were seeking Fulbright scholarships to teach or study in the United States.

The fatal attack on an American target was unprecedented in its scope in the occupied Palestinian territories.

President Bush was harshly critical of the Palestinians.

"Palestinian authorities should have acted long ago to fight terror in all its forms," he said in a written statement as he flew to California for an overnight visit en route to Asia.

Putting the blame squarely on the Palestinian leadership, Bush said, "The failure to create effective Palestinian security forces dedicated to fighting terror continues to cost lives. There must be an empowered prime minister who controls all Palestinian forces - reforms that continue to be blocked by Yasser Arafat."

"The failure to undertake these reforms and dismantle the terrorist organizations constitutes the greatest obstacle to achieving the Palestinian people's dream of statehood," Bush said.

US Attorney General John Ashcroft said an FBI "fly-away team" consisting of investigators and forensic experts would investigate. FBI officials said it would be a cooperative probe involving Israeli police.

FBI agents do not intend to go into Gaza immediately. Instead, they will rely on the Israelis to collect and preserve evidence, with the FBI doing the detailed examinations of what is found, the officials said.

Following the bombing, the US government advised its citizens to leave the Gaza Strip, but there were no signs of a mass departure Wednesday and several foreigners said they had no plans to leave.

Kurtzer said 200 to 400 Americans, some of them of Palestinian descent, work in the coastal territory, many for aid groups.

American diplomats at meetings in the West Bank were immediately returned to Jerusalem, a US official said on condition of anonymity.

US and Israeli officials said the attack underscored the need to dismantle Palestinian “militant” groups - a requirement of the stalled, US-backed "roadmap" peace plan that Israeli leaders have refused to carry out.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the bombing a "terrible disaster that proves the need to intensify Israel's war against the terror organizations." He was speaking at a local election campaign rally in the southern city of Ashkelon.

It was the second attack on an American diplomatic vehicle in Gaza, US officials said, pointing to an incident in June in which no one was injured.

US convoys of armored black and silver Chevrolet Suburbans travel in Gaza almost daily and usually take the same route. The convoys are easily identifiable as American.

The UN representative to the Middle East, Terje Roed-Larsen, said the attack was "an ominous widening of the conflict."

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