Arab gunmen killed one Israeli soldier and wounded three on Tuesday after infiltrating from Jordan in one of the bloodiest cross-border attacks in years, Israeli security sources said.
The security sources first reported that Israeli forces had entered Jordan in pursuit of the gunmen but later said troops crossed a frontier fence short of the actual border without leaving Israeli territory.
The rare attack on the normally quiet Israeli-Jordanian border cast a shadow over already-subdued Christmas celebrations in the Holy Land, which has been rocked by 15 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
It appeared Israeli troops were searching for the assailants in agricultural land leased by Jordan to Israel as part of the 1994 peace treaty between the two countries. The incident Tuesday occurred not far from where seven Israeli girls were shot and killed by a deranged Jordanian soldier in 1997.
Officials and witnesses said Israeli helicopters landed west of the border fence to let out special Israeli forces conducting the search. Two Israeli combat helicopters hovered in the air above the border, firing into the area below, witnesses said.
The Israeli army declined to provide details on its hunt for the gunmen except to say the Jordanian military was cooperating fully.
Jordanian Minister of State Saleh Qallab said no Israeli forces had crossed the border. "There is no hot pursuit...and we do not know where the infiltrators came from but there is no proof they crossed from Jordanian territory," he told Reuters.
The border raid in the northern Jordan Valley was carried out amid simmering Palestinian anger over Israel's ban on Yasser Arafat's annual Christmas Eve pilgrimage to Bethlehem.
Security sources said the gunmen opened fire on an Israeli patrol from across the border, wounding one soldier. Three other soldiers were hurt, two of them seriously, in an ensuing gun battle in an area 16 km (miles) north of the West Bank.
While ambulances rushed in to pick up the wounded, an Israeli helicopter gunship fired into a grove of trees where the gunmen were believed to have fled.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the border raid, which was one of the most serious attacks of its kind since Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994.
A radical splinter group of the Palestine Liberation Organisation took responsibility for a 1996 assault in which three Israeli soldiers were killed in the West Bank by gunmen who infiltrated across the border from Jordan.
Palestinian militant groups have been behind a wave of shootings and bomb attacks inside against Israel since an uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip erupted in September 2000.
A Jewish settler was critically wounded in a roadside shooting in the West Bank on Monday. A group linked to Arafat's Fatah faction said the attack was retaliation for Israel's refusal to allow the Palestinian leader to go to Bethlehem
The shooting took place just a little over a week after Arafat under intense international pressure to rein in militants behind suicide bombings in Israel called for a halt to attacks on Israelis.
In a separate incident, Israeli troops, tanks and helicopters raided the Palestinian-controlled village of Tammon in the West Bank and arrested seven Palestinians, Israeli and Palestinian sources said.
The army said it detained members of the militant Islamic group Hamas, including two "suspected of terrorist activity."
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