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Monday, March 17, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Activists: Death was no accident; Arafat offers condolences

The Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — A Palestinian-backed group of international activists today disputed a claim by the Israeli military that a U.S. protester standing in the path of an Israeli bulldozer was crushed accidentally.

The International Solidarity Movement said Rachel Corrie of Olympia, Wash., was in the line of vision of the bulldozer driver Sunday as she stood in his path to try to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in the Rafah refugee camp.

"When the bulldozer refused to stop or turn aside she climbed up onto the mound of dirt and rubble being gathered in front of it ... to look directly at the driver who kept on advancing," the group said in a statement.

The Israeli military said Sunday that Corrie's death was an accident. It said small windows in the bulldozer's cab restricted the driver's vision. Several requests by The Associated Press to talk to an army commander in the area went unanswered.

Adam Shapiro with the International Solidarity Movement, said Corrie's body would be flown to Olympia, her home town. Her parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, moved to Charlotte, N.C., two years ago from Olympia.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said today he contacted Corrie's family and expressed his condolences. "Our people embrace her and offer her our blessings," he said.

Amnesty International on Monday condemned Corrie's killing and called on the United States to suspend delivery of military equipment, including bulldozers, to Israel. In a statement, the human rights group called for an "independent investigation of her death."

At U.N. headquarters in Gaza City, about 200 Palestinians and foreigners attended a memorial service for Corrie on Monday. Four girls placed a picture of Corrie and flowers on an empty coffin, and mourners observed a moment of silence.

In Rafah, a 43-year-old Palestinian civilian killed by army fire Sunday, just after Corrie was crushed, was buried Monday. Mourners also carried an empty casket wrapped in U.S. and Palestinian flags, in memory of the peace activist.

Smith, who witnessed Sunday's incident, said it began when Corrie sat down in front of the bulldozer. He said the driver scooped her up with a pile of earth, dumped her on the ground and ran over her twice. Smith said Corrie was dressed in a bright orange jacket with reflective stripes.

The group said in its statement: "The bulldozer continued to advance so that she was pulled under the pile of dirt and rubble. After she had disappeared from view the driver kept advancing until the bulldozer was completely on top of her."

Protesters have stopped bulldozers in the past by sitting down in front of them, Smith said. Corrie did this Sunday, but this time the driver did not stop, Smith said.

Pictures of Corrie, her head covered in a traditional Muslim headscarf, were published on the front pages of Israeli newspapers Monday.

Corrie wore a headscarf when working among the Palestinians, especially in Rafah where people tend to be more observant, Smith said.

A photo of Corrie taken in February show her in the center of a large demonstration, burning a U.S. flag made of paper.

The International Solidarity Movement has actively protested Israel's operations during the 29 months of violence. Last March, members of the group holed up in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity during a military siege and sneaked into Arafat's compound when the army blockaded his Ramallah headquarters.

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