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Hamas Vows Revenge for Israeli Raid That Killed 14 Palestinians

The Islamic militant group Hamas threatened new attacks Monday after Israel fired a missile into a crowded Gaza street and killed 11 Palestinians. The United States said it was "deeply troubled" by the raid in which three other Palestinians died and 110 were wounded.

Israeli said its troops were searching for Hamas militants when they raided Khan Younis with 40 tanks backed by helicopters shortly after midnight Monday. Most of the dead fell victim to a missile fired into a crowd. The Palestinians said they were civilians. Israel said most were fighters killed in battle.

"Everyone should know that as our people were not safe in Khan Younis, so Israelis will not be safe in Tel Aviv," said Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader. "We will strike everywhere."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher couched U.S. criticism of the operation with a restatement of American support for Israel's right to self-defense.

"We're deeply troubled by the reports of Israeli actions in Gaza over the weekend," he said, while adding: "We've always respected Israel's right to defend itself, including going after armed groups and armed men in some of these areas."

Javier Solana, the European Union's visiting foreign policy chief, said he was shocked by the number of casualties. "I think that it is even more dramatic because of the efforts that the Palestinian people were making in order to get out of the way of violence in recent weeks," he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan "deplores the military attack in civilian areas" and believes such actions "do not promote Israeli security," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said in a statement.

In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the scale of the operation, "was clearly disproportionate."

Israel's deputy defense minister, Weizman Shiri, regretted the loss of civilian life. "But what can we do?" he said. "It's war."

The four-hour raid was the deadliest against the Palestinians in three months and besides the dead, 25 of the injured were in critical condition, doctors said. Most suffered shrapnel wounds in the head, chest and abdomen. The dead ranged in age from 14 to 52.

The Israeli military said Khan Younis is a stronghold of the Islamic militant group Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israeli civilians in suicide bombings. It said during the raid, troops arrested a wanted man carrying a homemade explosive device.

But there was no indication of a specific target, as in previous strikes against wanted militants that also claimed civilian casualties.

As the raid began, the military said soldiers exchanged fire with armed Palestinians, killing two. Doctors said a 45-year-old woman also died. The missile was fired in a densely populated neighborhood as the Israelis were pulling out.

Brig. Gen. Yisrael Ziv, the army commander in the area, said troops met heavy resistance from Palestinian gunmen and many armed men gathered in the streets as the Israelis withdrew.

"They fired a lot and threw grenades. There was a battle there," he said. "The helicopter aimed at this armed group and hit them."

Palestinian witnesses gave a different account.

Wissam Abdeen, who was hit by shrapnel in the arm, said as troops withdrew, residents emerged from homes to inspect the damage, and there were no gunmen in the crowd. Another witness, Walid Sabah, whose 17-year-old son Abdullah was killed by the missile, said there were armed men in the street but they were not shooting.

Abdeen said as troops withdrew, he heard helicopters. "A big explosion lifted me and blew me 30 feet away," he said.

Ziv said the battle was filmed from a pilotless plane; the army has not responded to an Associated Press request to see the footage. Ziv said none of the dead Palestinians were on Israel's wanted list.

Most of the dead and wounded -- including children as young as 9 -- were taken to the city's Nasser Hospital. There, as more than 500 people gathered outside near the morgue, shots from Israeli machine guns and assault rifles hit the courtyard.

Ziv said the shooting by Israeli forces was prompted by mortar fire from a nearby position; at the hospital, two explosions were heard before shooting began.

People ran for cover behind trees and walls. A 27-year-old man was killed and three were wounded, including a 14-year-old boy hit in the neck. One bullet narrowly missed an AP reporter, who was hit in the shoe by a small bullet fragment.

The dead, wrapped in Palestinian flags, were taken from the hospital on stretchers, carried by gunmen firing in the air and shouting "revenge, revenge."

Last month, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat appealed for an end to attacks against Israeli civilians. But a few days later Islamic militants staged a pair of suicide bombings that killed seven Israelis, prompting a 10-day Israeli siege of Arafat's West Bank headquarters.

Israel withdrew from the devastated Ramallah compound under U.S. and United Nations pressure last week, and there have since been signs of a fledgling Palestinian campaign to move to a strategy of nonviolent resistance to Israel's occupation.

"Every time we witness efforts to revive the peace process ... like those being exerted now by Solana, the Israeli government moves to conduct such war crimes ... because the end game of the Israeli government is to resume full occupation" of the West Bank and Gaza, said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat.

Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Palestinian militants were to blame for the many deaths. "We try to keep civilian casualties to a minimum, but we can't say that because there are civilians there, we will not take action against the terrorists," Gissin said.

In other developments Monday:

-- A 42-year-old Palestinian man was shot by Israeli soldiers between two roadblocks near the West Bank city of Nablus, witnesses said. The man died in a hospital. The Israeli military had no comment.

-- Palestinian gunmen disguised as police at a fake checkpoint kidnapped and killed the chief of Palestinian riot police, Col. Rajeh Abu Lehiya. Palestinian officials blamed Hamas. In the aftermath, four Hamas supporters were killed in clashes with Palestinian police in Gaza City and the nearby Nusseirat refugee camp.

-- A Palestinian convicted as an accomplice in the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi a year ago was sentenced to life in prison by an Israeli court. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical PLO faction, took responsibility for the killing.

-- Three Israeli Arabs have been arrested on suspicion of planning bomb attacks, the government said. A statement said the three were recruited in March by Hamas master bomb-maker Mohammed Deif, who was wounded in an Israeli strike on Sept. 26.