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Passover Massacre Death Toll Climbs to 26


The death toll in the Passover massacre of March 27 has risen to 26. Three of the seriously wounded victims died on Tuesday and another on Wednesday. More than 130 persons were wounded when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device in the dining room of the Park Hotel in Netanya during the Passover seder meal. And in the Haifa restaurant suicide bombing that took place March 31, Carlos Yerushalmi, 52, died of his injuries in Haifa's Rambam Medical Center Wednesday, bringing that death toll to 15.

Israel Adds Nablus to West Bank Assault

By VOA News

Israeli tanks have pushed into the Palestinian city of Nablus, the largest in the West Bank, as Israel pressed its offensive against Palestinian militants. Scores of tanks entered the city from two directions Wednesday. Witnesses said Palestinian fighters poured heavy machine gun fire on the advancing troops. But the tanks blasted through makeshift barricades that the Palestinians had set up in anticipation of the Israeli move.

Israeli forces re-occupied two other Palestinian towns, Jenin and Salfit, earlier Wednesday. At least 11 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were killed in Wednesday's fighting throughout the West Bank.

In Bethlehem, Israeli forces continue to encircle scores of Palestinian gunmen who took shelter in the Church of the Nativity. The gunmen entered the church, one of Christianity's holiest shrines, after long battles on Tuesday.

Between 200 and 400 people have taken refuge in the church, according to various accounts, including armed men and civilians. Both sides said they have ordered their men not to shoot. Israeli officials accuse Palestinian fighters of exploiting churches and holy sites for protection.

A number of U.S. and British nationals were evacuated from Bethlehem by diplomats from their home countries. Israel re-occupied Bethlehem Tuesday. Five Italian journalists and an Armenian colleague were also evacuated Wednesday. One of the Italian journalists, Marc Innaro, said the gunmen inside the church do not intend to surrender.

Israeli forces have re-occupied seven West Bank towns since Friday - Nablus is the eighth - despite mounting international calls for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pull out his troops. Israel said its aim is to root out terrorists and prevent attacks against Israelis.

U.S. Urges Families of Diplomats to Leave Jerusalem

By VOA News

As the situation in the Middle East deteriorates, the United States is urging families of U.S. diplomats in Jerusalem to leave Israel. The State Department issued an updated travel warning for Israel Tuesday. It said relatives of diplomats at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem should voluntarily go home and the State Department will offer free flights to those who want to leave. The recommendation does not apply to relatives of diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv.

The new travel warning also urged all U.S. citizens living in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip to relocate to a safe location and said Americans should put off any travel to Israel or the Palestinian territories. The warning said ongoing violence has caused numerous civilian deaths and injuries, including to some American tourists - and the potential for more terrorism is high.

The University of California joined with other major American colleges in recalling students from academic programs in Israel. The university said it ordered its remaining 27 students to leave the country. Twenty-eight students have already gone home. UC also said it would put its Fall 2002 Israeli academic program on hold as it re-evaluates the security situation.

Annan Urges Syria, Lebanon to Reduce Tensions with Israel

By VOA News

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has urged the presidents of Lebanon and Syria to reduce tensions with Israel, following more violence between Syrian-backed Hizbullah guerrillas and Israeli soldiers. Annan's telephone calls to the two Arab leaders on Wednesday came shortly after Israeli and Lebanese-based Hizbullah forces exchanged fire for a second day along Israel's northern border.

Hizbullah fired mortars and anti-tank rockets at Israeli troops in the disputed Shebaa Farms region, in the foothills of the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. Israel said one of its soldiers was wounded in the attack. Israeli warplanes responded by raiding the outskirts of a nearby Lebanese village. A second airstrike followed, with four missiles reported striking near another village. This followed retaliatory warplane attacks by Israel on suspected Hizbullah positions in southern Lebanon on Tuesday.

In another development, Syria agreed to go ahead with a planned redeployment of its 20,000 troops stationed in Lebanon to areas in eastern Lebanon near the border with Syria. Diplomats in the region said they believe the Syrian government is eager to avoid direct confrontation with Israel following the renewed border tensions.

Syria's troop movement is also in line with a 1989 agreement ending Lebanon's 15-year civil war. Lebanon's opposition Christians have been pushing for the quick withdrawal of Syrian troops.These developments follow warnings by Israeli officials that Hizbullah guerillas may be trying to open a second front while many Israeli troops are engaged in the conflict against Palestinians.

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