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Violence tests Mideast cease-fire

Palestinian militants fired rockets at a small Jewish settlement in southern Gaza late Wednesday, and Israeli troops responded Thursday by closing down the strip's recently reopened main road, posing the first significant test for a 5-day-old cease-fire and a fledgling peace plan.

Four people suffered minor injuries in the attack on Kfar Darom, a settlement with about 250 residents in central Gaza, an Israeli army spokesman said. He said the main north-south road through Gaza, which had been opened to Palestinian traffic just four days ago for the first time in years, was closed for about six hours, from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Also on Thursday, Israeli troops killed a leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to the mainstream Fatah movement of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, during an attempted arrest in the West Bank town of Qalqilyah, news services reported. The dead man was identified as Mahmoud Shawer.

Security and military officials on both sides scrambled to prevent the incidents from dampening a new spirit of cooperation and from spiraling into a round of retaliatory actions that could negate progress in implementing a U.S.-backed peace initiative called the "road map."

In remarks to reporters while touring Gaza on Thursday, Abbas condemned the rocket attack and the killing of a Bulgarian worker by Palestinian militants on Monday as "acts of terror." Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan said his forces were searching for the militant cell responsible for the attack, Israel radio reported.

According to an Israeli military official, "Three rockets were fired at the heart of the settlement, and four Israelis were wounded, so we closed the road temporarily. We view this very seriously."

Military officials said the rocket attack was preceded by a mortar strike in the same area about four hours earlier in which no one was injured. The rocket attack was one of the most serious violations of the three-month cease-fire agreement announced Sunday by three of the most radical Palestinian groups fighting in the 33-month intifada, or uprising, against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In addition, the Israeli response ran counter to an agreement reached Monday under which Israel pulled back its forces from most of the Gaza Strip and turned over security control to regular Palestinian forces.

Two groups that didn't agree to Sunday's cease-fire declaration _ the Popular Resistance Committee and Abu Raish _ asserted responsibility for Thursday's rocket attack in a statement faxed to reporters in Gaza. Both are small, radical organizations composed mostly of castoffs and disaffected militants previously aligned with Fatah.

Kfar Darom was a key security concern for Israeli officials in the recent negotiations over troop pullbacks in Gaza. The settlement is bisected by the main north-south road, which runs the entire 26 miles of the territory, making its residents easy targets. As part of the pullback agreement, the road was opened to Palestinian traffic, but at the Kfar Darom junction, vehicles were routed onto a bypass that skirts the settlement.

Despite the rocket attack, Israel continued to nudge the peace process forward. A military court ordered the release of Suleiman Abu Mutlak, a senior Palestinian security official who was jailed two months ago and accused of involvement in terrorism; he was freed for lack of evidence. Thirty-three other Palestinians detained last week in Hebron were also released. And Israel announced it was stopping its controversial policy of deporting to the Gaza Strip relatives of West Bank militants accused of terrorism.

A day after making a call to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President Bush on Thursday called Abbas and "thanked him for the strong leadership he is showing," according to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. Bush "noted how the last several weeks have been marked by strong will and inspired leadership," Fleischer said.

Bush also thanked Abbas for arresting a militant responsible for a rocket attack on Israel from the Gaza Strip. A spokesman for Abbas said Palestinian security forces had arrested a member of al-Aqsa in connection with the rocket attack on Kfar Darom, but no other details were available. It was unclear Thursday night how to reconcile the apparent conflict between the arrest report and the claim of responsibility by the two other groups.

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