VATICAN CITY, NOVEMBER 17, 2002 ( John Paul II denounced the "cowardly" killing of twelve Jewish settlers at Hebron on Friday, as they were returning from Sabbath prayers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

When the Holy Father met on Sunday with pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican to pray the "Angelus," he expressed his "profound sharing in the sorrow of the relatives" of the victims of the "cowardly attack."

The Pope recalled that the killing took place when the Jewish believers "had just finished praying, just a few steps from the tomb of the Patriarch Abraham, whom we recognize as our common father in faith."

"While I pray for the eternal repose of all those who died, I ask the Lord to infuse in all the necessary courage to return to the path of justice and peace," he said.

According to police and medical sources, an unknown number of Palestinians fired from the Abu Sneineh neighborhood at a group of faithful walking along "Worshippers' Lane," from the Tomb of the Patriarchs to their settlement of Kiryat Arba.

Soldiers, rushing to the scene from a nearby army post, were also caught in the ambush. The Palestinian attackers opened fire with automatic weapons and threw grenades against the military, the police added.

Hebron is a divided city, long plagued by religious tensions and flashes of furious violence between Jewish settlers and Palestinians. The hilltop of Abu Sneineh overlooks one of the Israeli settler areas. Some 600 radical settlers have established themselves among the 120,000 Palestinians of the city. The attack was claimed by Islamic Jihad.

Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the 1993 Oslo Peace Agreements are "null and void," as is the Treaty of Hebron, which divided the city in two zones, one Palestinian and the other Israeli.