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Israeli troops mistakenly gun down security guards

Israeli troops and a helicopter gunship, on high alert for a possible Palestinian attack, opened fire with automatic weapons Thursday in the southern West Bank and mistakenly killed two Israeli security guards in civilian clothes, the army said.

The shooting renewed debate on the Israeli army's policies about when soldiers can open fire, rules that Palestinians and human rights groups say are often ignored.

The killings came on a day of scattered violence that included a gunbattle in the West Bank village of Tamun, where Israeli troops came under fire. The soldiers shot back, killing four Palestinian attackers, the military said.

The army also acknowledged a second shooting error by its troops, in the northern Gaza Strip. An army foot patrol shot and wounded two Palestinian men handling pipes similar to a launching tube used to fire a rocket in the same area Wednesday.

It turned out that the men had been working with irrigation equipment and were not armed, the Israeli colonel who led the operation said.

The military expressed regret for the shootings, while critics said they were part of a larger pattern of soldiers firing before confirming the identities of their targets.

"This just shows that the army's open-fire policies don't require soldiers to give any warnings, and the result is that innocent people get killed and hurt," said Lior Yavne, spokesman for the Israeli human rights group B'tselem.

Israeli officials also confirmed an unpublished report by the security services that put the number of Palestinian civilian deaths at 365 out of 1,949 Palestinians killed in the current round of Mideast fighting. Palestinian groups say the number of civilians killed is much higher and accounts for a large majority of the Palestinian dead.

On the Israeli side, more than 720 have been killed, the vast majority civilians, since the fighting erupted in September 2000.

In the West Bank, military reinforcements were directed near Hebron after intelligence reports that Palestinian militants were preparing an assault, the army said. Soldiers saw two armed men near a hilltop antenna station that included a mobile home used by workers.

The Israeli security guards had stopped to make coffee, witnesses said, and their white sedan had the name of their security company written on the side and hood in red Hebrew letters.

The troops ordered the men to stop, but one jumped into the car and began driving away, the army said. Soldiers opened fire, piercing the car with dozens of bullets. The second man began running, but was killed when a helicopter swooped down and fired on him.

IRAQ PAYS PALESTINIANS: A defiant Saddam Hussein, under intense international scrutiny for possible ties to terrorism, this week distributed $225,000 to 21 families of Palestinians killed in fighting with Israel, including $25,000 to the family of a Hamas suicide bomber.

In all, Iraq has paid more than $35-million to families of militants _ including relatives of scores of suicide bombers _ and slain Palestinian civilians.

The money has been disbursed in ceremonies organized by the Arab Liberation Front, a pro-Iraqi faction.

Ibrahim Zaanen, the group's leader in Gaza, said the payments are a show of Arab solidarity against Western aggression.

"President Saddam considers the Palestinian people as part of his Arab nation," Zaanen told the Associated Press. "The Iraqis and the Palestinians are in the same trench, facing an ugly aggression."