JERUSALEM, Oct. 11 (AP)--U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan held unexpected talks Wednesday with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders and then extended his stay for 24 hours, in hopes of mediating a truce and paving the way for the resumption of peace talks.
The level of violence in the region had dropped off compared with last week, but pockets of tension persisted. As Annan shuttled between Jerusalem and Gaza City, a gun battle erupted between Palestinians and Israeli troops along a West Bank highway.
Israeli soldiers fired tank machine guns toward the gunmen, who wove in and out of the alleys of a Palestinian village. Four helicopter gunships hovered above. The violence erupted as the funeral convoy of a U.S.-born Jewish settler passed by the area.
Also, two Palestinians were killed by gunfire Wednesday, one in the West Bank town of Tulkarem and one in the Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis. The circumstances of their deaths--the 89th and 90th fatalities since violence erupted here two weeks ago--were not immediately clear.
On the diplomatic front, Annan held separate, unscheduled meetings Wednesday morning with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Annan was to leave for Beirut later Wednesday, but then decided to extend his stay in Israel and the Palestinian areas until Thursday.
"We haven't finished our work here yet," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard told The Associated Press.
Annan is trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian truce and also help win the return of three Israeli soldiers captured by Lebanese guerrillas over the weekend.
In parallel efforts, President Clinton sought to convene a Mideast summit in the next few days in hopes of rescuing Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Palestinian sources say Clinton offered to come to Israel and to the Palestinian areas for separate talks, and then convene a three-way meeting with Barak and Arafat.
However, Clinton's effort collapsed after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose nation was to host the meeting, rejected the idea at this time.
Barak has said he is ready in principle to attend such a gathering, but wants to see stronger efforts by Arafat to quell the violence. Most of those killed and injured have been Palestinians.
The Israeli prime minister accused the Palestinian Authority on Wednesday of encouraging possible terrorist attacks in Israel, noting that Arafat has released several Islamic militants from prison in recent days.
``I call on the (Israeli) public to be alert, but the responsibility for possible terror attacks lies first of all with those who carry them out, those who send them (the assailants), and those who permit the release of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members from prison,'' Barak said.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, were also toward Clinton's efforts to convene a summit.
An Arab summit is scheduled for Oct. 21, and Arafat's adviser, Nabil Aburdeneh, said it would make little sense to hold a U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian meeting before that. Mubarak voiced a similar sentiment. Throughout the day Wednesday, friction continued in several spots in the region, including the West Bank town of Nablus and the nearby Jewish settlement of Elon Moreh.
On Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of mourners joined the funeral procession of Hillel Lieberman, an American-born Elon Moreh settler who was killed over the weekend as he made his way to the Joseph's Tomb enclave in Nablus, a West Bank town.
After the cortege of buses and cars set out from Elon Moreh, it passed a Palestinian hamlet south of Nablus. At some point, children from the village hurled stones and mourners got off the buses, firing shots in the air.
Eventually a gun battle erupted, though the circumstances of the escalation were not immediately clear. Israeli troops fired machine guns mounted on tanks at gunmen hiding between homes in the hamlet, and four helicopter gunships were brought in, but did not fire.
Also Wednesday, several dozen Palestinians threw rocks at Israeli soldiers in the divided West Bank town of Hebron. The teen-agers had broken away from a march of about 500 Palestinians protesting the presence of Jewish settlers in the city.
``Down with the olive branch, up with the rifles'' and ``Kofi Annan, we want a state,'' read two of the banners.
Near the West Bank settlement of Eli, a Jewish settler was killed when a car driven by a Palestinian overturned and struck a group of Israelis standing by the roadside. Police said they believed it was an accident, while settler leaders portrayed the incident as a terrorist attack.
In the Gaza Strip, a 12-year-old Palestinian boy lay brain dead Wednesday, a day after being shot by Israeli troops during a stone-throwing clash.
The relative calm of the past few days was attributed, in part, to the presence of high-profile mediators. Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, European Union security chief Javier Solana and EU peace envoy Miguel Moratinos were shuttling between Gaza and Jerusalem. British Foreign Minister Robin Cook was expected later Wednesday.
One of the disputes holding up a summit is a Palestinian demand that an international commission of inquiry be formed to look into the violence. The Palestinians say Israel has used excessive force, while Israel says its troops only fire in life-threatening situations.
Barak said he would accept an inquiry ``under the authority and responsibility of the United States,'' while the Palestinians want the United Nations--and in particular, Arab countries--to be involved.