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Israel raids W. Bank city, imposes curfew

Palestinian stone-throwers took cover amid clashes with Israeli soldiers in Nablus yesterday. Israeli officials said the wide-scale raid was crucial to stopping future militant attacks. (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

NABLUS, West Bank -- Israeli soldiers sealed off this city yesterday , placed its densely populated center under curfew, and conducted house-to-house searches for Palestinian militants in the largest military operation in the West Bank in months.

Israeli officials said the wide-scale raid was crucial to stopping future militant attacks against Israel, but Palestinian officials said the offensive threatened nascent efforts to restart the peace process.

"We condemn this military incursion," said Saeb Erekat, aide to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. "This will undermine the efforts that are being made to sustain the cease-fire with Israel."

It was first large-scale operation in the West Bank since Israeli forces entered Nablus in July and surrounded a security compound to arrest suspected militants.

The raid began early yesterday morning, when about 80 jeeps, armored vehicles, and bulldozers poured into Nablus, which is known as a hotbed of militancy, witnesses said. Soldiers closed the main entrance to the city and bulldozers erected huge piles of rubble to block off key roads.

The operation was focused on Nablus's Old City, or casbah, a densely populated area of narrow alleyways, apartment buildings, and markets. About 50,000 people were placed under curfew, residents said.

The military took over local TV and radio stations and ordered people to remain indoors, warning the clampdown would remain in effect for several days, residents said. The army said the road closures and curfew were necessary to avoid civilian casualties.

Soldiers then moved from house to house in search of suspects. At one point, a small group forced a Palestinian youth to lead them into a home. Afterward, the soldiers placed him, along with several young Palestinian men, into a military vehicle.

Israel's Supreme Court in 2005 banned the practice of using Palestinian civilians as "human shields" to search homes for explosives or militants ahead of soldiers. The army had no immediate comment on yesterday's raid , which was filmed by AP Television News.

Sporadic clashes were reported as soldiers were pelted with stones and cement blocks and exchanged fire with Palestinian gunmen, the army said. The army responded with rubber bullets and stun grenades, witnesses said. In one instance , soldiers entered a cemetery to search for Palestinians who had pelted their vehicle with stones.

The army said two soldiers were slightly wounded by a Palestinian bomb; Palestinian medical officials said four Palestinians were wounded by rubber bullets.

The raid occurred a day after Israeli troops discovered an explosives lab in the city, the West Bank's commercial center. Major Avital Leibovich, an army spokeswoman, said troops uncovered another explosives lab and small caches of weapons yesterday .

The area commander, Brigadier General Yair Golan, said the offensive was necessary because of the increased militant activity in Nablus. "We entered the city to lower the threat level to Israel and hit terror infrastructure," he said in a phone interview.

Palestinian officials said the raid threatened new peace efforts.

Abbas met last week with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Jerusalem. Though the meeting yielded little progress, participants said they discussed the possibility of extending an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire in the Gaza Strip to the West Bank.

Also yesterday , a smugglers' tunnel under the Gaza-Egypt border collapsed, injuring three people. Security officials said it belonged to a clan known for dealing in drugs and weapons.

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