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Palestinian Women Help Free Gunmen

Still, she said, she did not regret her choice. "I was so upset about what was happening, so I answered their call," she said from her hospital bed.

Maj. Avital Leibovich said Hamas was exploiting women. "They were using those poor women as human shields," she said. "This is a clear example of use of innocent population for terror."

The army said the gunmen inside the mosque took advantage of the demonstration to escape because there were not enough infantrymen to block the women from approaching the building, and troops did not want to shoot into the crowd.

The army said troops spotted two militants hiding in the crowd of women and opened fire, hitting the two.

As the women rushed away from the scene, at least two men disguised in women's clothes were seen in the crowd. Jubilant bystanders embraced them, celebrating their escape.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas "saluted the women of Palestine ... who led the protest to break the siege of Beit Hanoun." Haniyeh urged U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to witness firsthand "the massacres of the Palestinian people," and appealed to the Arab world to "stop the ongoing bloodshed."

Palestinian U.N. observer Riyad Mansour said he sent letters to Annan and the presidents of the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly "requesting from them to do whatever they can to stop this aggression immediately" and to pressure Israel to withdraw its forces from Gaza.

Annan expressed deep concern at the continuing escalation of violence and rising death toll and urged Israel "to exercise maximum restraint, do their utmost to protect civilians and to refrain from further escalating an already grave situation," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Loudspeakers across Gaza called on people to come to demonstrations after Friday prayers to express solidarity with Beit Hanoun. Tens of thousands representing various Palestinian factions massed in streets throughout the coastal strip,

The army said Beit Hanoun was targeted because it was a major staging ground for rocket attacks. But Israeli officials have said the takeover of the town did not signal the start of a wider-scale military offensive in Gaza.

Militants have been undeterred by the offensive, however, and have continued firing rockets, including four that landed in southern Israel on Friday, slightly wounding two people.

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© 2006 The Associated Press