Palestinian medics on Thursday said a four-year old girl died of tear gas inhalation while another girl, aged nine, and a teenager were killed by Israeli gunfire as its troops continued their raids into the Gaza for the third day.

The Israeli army claimed Palestinian fighters, operating near youngsters, had hurled grenades and fired automatic weapons and an anti-tank missile at the soldiers, who shot back at them and also used tear gas and rubber-coated bullets to disperse the stone-throwers.

"We did not fire at residential buildings or children," an Israeli army spokesman said.

Dr Mahmud al-Asali, director of Jabalya hospital in Gaza, said four-year-old Asma Jlaiq was admitted with respiratory problems.

"Her skin had turned blue as a result of her inability to breathe and she soon died," he said. "We have enough proof to declare that gas inhalation caused her death."

"Her skin had turned blue as a result of her inability to breathe and she soon died"

Dr Mahmud al-Asali, director of Jabalya hospital in Gaza

Medics said the nine-year-old girl who died was hit by a bullet that penetrated her home.

Israeli forces also killed three members of Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement early Friday at Kalkilya in the north of the West Bank.

The three were shot by a "special unit" disguised as Palestinians who arrived in an unmarked car, security sources said.

The dead, aged between 20 and 25, included two Fatah political activists, Muhammad Nazal and Muhammad Odeh.

Sharon's plea

Meanwhile, faced with dwindling support for his "disengagement" plan, the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made a forceful plea to his ruling Likud party lawmakers to back him or risk losing unprecedented US assurances for Israel's cause.

"Whoever is opposed to the plan gives up all these achievements we had made…and will carry the responsibility of canceling all the US commitments," said Sharon.

Sharon's appeal came 10-days ahead of the crucial 2 May party referendum on his disengagement proposal, which entails a selective Israeli withdrawal from settlements on occupied Palestinian territories.

A poll in the Haaretz daily indicated that support for Sharon's plan within the ruling party had slipped to 44%. Forty percent opposed the plan.

The finding has set alarm bells ringing in Sharon's camp, which had thought victory in the Likud vote was a foregone conclusion.