Militants vow revenge over Palestinian prisoner death

Thousands of mourners Monday attended a tense funeral in the West Bank of a prisoner Palestinians say was tortured to death in an Israeli jail, as masked militants vowed vengeance.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas accused Israel of trying to sow "chaos" in the occupied West Bank but said his people would not be provoked into violence.

"This horrific crime will not go unpunished and we promise the Zionist occupation that we will respond to this crime," said a statement by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Abbas's Fatah movement.

The statement was issued at the funeral of the prisoner, Arafat Jaradat, in the West Bank village of Sair, while masked militants fired assault rifles into the air.

Angry mourners waved Fatah banners or Palestinian flags as they crowded into Sair, Jaradat's home village near the city of Hebron in the southern West Bank.

Israeli forces stayed just outside the village.

"Al-Aqsa brigades, the armed wing of the Fatah national liberation movement, mourns with all pride its hero, the martyr of freedom, the prisoner Arafat Jaradat," the Brigades statement said, in reference to Jaradat's membership of the group.

Abbas had on Sunday been told by the Israeli authorities to calm passions in the West Bank, which has been rocked by protests demanding the release of hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli prisons.

He said said on Monday that Israel was deliberately seeking to stoke unrest in the occupied West Bank but that Palestinians would not be provoked.

"The Israelis want chaos and we know it but we won't let them," Abbas said in comments at his West Bank headquarters, seemingly in response to the Israeli demand on Sunday that he calm a wave of protest in the territory.

"We want peace and freedom for our prisoners and no matter how hard they try to drag us into their schemes, we will not be dragged," he said.

Protests in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli prisons have been building for weeks but gained new momentum with the sudden death in his cell on Saturday of 30-year-old Jaradat.

Palestinian officials accuse Israel of torturing him to death.

Israeli media link the increased unrest and Israel's concerns about possible escalation to next month's visit by US President Barack Obama to the Jewish state and to the Palestinians.

An Israeli security source told AFP on Monday that defence officials were in constant contact with their Palestinian counterparts in an effort to restore calm.

An Israeli military spokesman reported "scattered protests here and there" in the West Bank on Monday but said disturbances were minor and there were no injuries.

But Palestinian medics said that seven people were lightly injured by army live fire as 500 Palestinians protested near Ofer prison and military camp, near Ramallah.

The Palestinian minister of prisoner affairs, Issa Qaraqaa, on Sunday accused Israel of torturing Jaradat to death, citing the preliminary findings of an Israeli-Palestinian autopsy.

Israeli prison authorities initially said he appeared to have died of a heart attack.

Qaraqaa said the autopsy, performed in the presence of a Palestinian doctor, indicated bruises on Jaradat's torso, muscle damage and broken ribs.

Israel said the fractured ribs which could be from efforts to resuscitate him.

A spokeswoman for the Israel Prisons Service said that three hunger-strikers were still in Israeli hospitals where they were taken at the end of last week for checkups but that she could not divulge details of their medical condition.

Rights organisations and Palestinian prisoner support groups say the three, and a fourth prisoner under observation in the medical wing of a prison in central Israel, have been on hunger strike for several months.

The Ramallah-based Prisoners' Club announced Saturday that another seven prisoners had joined them.