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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Envoys Try to Head Off Mideast War

JERUSALEM — Palestinians and Israelis exchanged gunfire Monday, hours before the deadline was up on Israel’s ultimatum to the Palestinians to end the violence, or face "forceful" action.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was among the world leaders who stepped up efforts to stem the crisis.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright still held out the possibility of a summit, but Israel said it was too soon to consider such a step.

Ivanov and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived in Tel Aviv on Monday night to confer with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Arafat, returning from a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said he would limit his talks with Annan to Palestinian demands for an international inquiry of the events of the past 12 days that have left 88 people dead, most of them Palestinians.

The UN Security Council has called for an "objective inquiry," but stopped short of Arafat’s demand for an international commission. Israel has rejected both calls.

Earlier in the day, Ivanov held crisis talks with Syrian and Lebanese officials to arrange a prisoner swap between Israel and the Hezbollah guerrilla group, which seized three Israeli soldiers in a well-planned attack near the Lebanese-Israeli border Saturday.

Hezbollah’s capture of the Israeli soldiers deepened world concern that violence could spread to Lebanon and its political master Syria, widening the conflict that has already set Israeli forces against Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem.

As part of the diplomatic offensive, Ivanov traveled to Damascus and Beirut. He urged Israel to stop shooting and killing Palestinian civilians. "Before anything we should put an end to the violence against Palestinian citizens," he told reporters in the Syrian capital.

"The innocent civilians should not continue to be killed. We should prepare the appropriate climate to replace violence with dialogue," Ivanov said after talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara.

It was unclear what time Monday night Barak would declare the deadline passed, or if it would be extended. Barak was set to meet his Cabinet at 10:30 p.m local time and with Annan and Ivanov on Tuesday. The two were meeting with the Israeli foreign minister on Monday night.

Annan and Ivanov were also due to visit Gaza — Annan later Monday night, Ivanov on Tuesday. The visits were expected to have a calming influence, with Israelis and Palestinians perhaps interested in avoiding an escalation as long as Annan and Ivanov are in the region.

Israeli officials had threatened to go onto an offensive footing — perhaps even attacking Palestinian headquarters — if Arafat did not announce a cease-fire. Palestinians dismissed the ultimatum as "insulting."

Fighting continued throughout Yom Kippur, and spread once again to inside Israel, with Arab and Jewish youths throwing stones in Nazareth, the town of Jesus’ boyhood. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up the riots. Two Arab youths died, apparently from rubber bullet wounds.

They were buried together in Nazareth on Monday afternoon, borne by hundreds of mourners shouting, "With our blood and souls, we will redeem you, martyrs!"

The regional police commissioner ordered an investigation into the shootings, while Arab leaders in Nazareth called for a general strike Monday accompanied by three days of mourning.

In the West Bank overnight, an American-born Jewish settler was found shot dead in a cave near Nablus.

On Monday morning, about 5,000 Palestinian youths — some in school uniforms — set out from Nablus on a march into Israeli-held areas to protest the violence. Amal Katar said passing schoolboys persuaded her and her classmates not to go to school, and to join the march instead. "I am here to speak for my country and give my voice to what’s happening now," said Katar, 17.

Later, the marchers — joined by Palestinian gunmen — reached an Israeli checkpoint, and there was an exchange of live fire. Some Palestinian gunmen climbed into olive trees to better aim their weapons at the Israelis. The gun battle ended quickly, and at least two Palestinians were injured in the fighting, including a television journalist.

A gun battle also raged near the town of Ramallah, with at least one man injured.

Police and military in the West Bank were bracing for the possibility of retaliatory attacks from settlers after Yom Kippur ended in the evening.

In Syria, presidential spokesman Joubran Kourieh said that President Bashar welcomed the Russian diplomatic drive to end the violence and stressed the solution to the current crisis could be achieved if Israel was prepared to implement United Nations Security Council resolutions.

In Damascus, Ivanov held talks with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. He also met Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss.

UN special representative in Lebanon Rolf Knutsson held talks with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and was optimistic a quick solution would be found for the prisoners.

"I cannot disclose any information. It was a good meeting. It was fruitful meeting," he told reporters. Asked if he thought there could be a quick solution, he said: "I am optimistic."

Hezbollah said a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official would meet Nasrallah separately in Beirut later on Monday.

(AP, Reuters)