Tue, Dec 14, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Israel strikes back after blast at army checkpoint

RETALIATION Eight missiles were fired at targets in Gaza City after militants detonated 1,500kg of explosives in a tunnel they had burrowed under an Israeli army post

AGENCIES , GAZA, GAZA STRIP

Israeli helicopter gunships fired eight missiles at targets in Gaza City early yesterday, hours after Palestinian militants killed five soldiers in an attack on an army post along the Gaza-Egypt border.

One of the targets was one of many metal foundries in Gaza City which the army says are used by militants to produce munitions. The other target was an empty building.

Hospitals had no reports of casualties.

The loud explosions woke residents from their sleep. Gaza City was plunged into darkness when one of the missiles hit a generator, cutting off electricity.

The assault followed one of the most sophisticated attacks ever by Palestinian militants against an Israeli military post near the Rafah crossing to Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip. Palestinian militants detonated 1,500kg of explosives in a tunnel burrowed under the post and then gunmen opened fire at the wounded soldiers while militants in the nearby town of Rafah pounded the position with mortar bombs.

The attack on Sunday at sundown was the bloodiest since Yasser Arafat died a month ago, negating some of the goodwill flowing between the two sides since then. Israel said the bombing jeopardized chances for normalization.

Several structures at the crossing collapsed and others were damaged by the force of the blast. In a coordinated assault, Palestinian gunmen rushed the base after the blast.

In a statement released early yesterday, the military said five soldiers were killed and five injured, two seriously, in the explosion. The statement said two Palestinians charged the base and opened fire after the blast, and soldiers shot them dead. Palestinians said one of the attackers was killed and the other escaped.

Hitting back, Israeli helicopters fired at least five missiles at targets in Gaza City early yesterday, witnesses said. There were no reports of casualties. One missile set a fire at an abandoned metal workshop, and the other target was an empty house near the Islamic University, they said.

The military said the targets were buildings where Hamas manufactured and stored weapons, including mortars and rockets.

The attack and retaliation were clear signs that a lull in violence that followed Arafat's death on Nov. 11 is over. On Tuesday, an Israeli soldier was killed in a blast at the entrance to another tunnel near the Gaza-Israel border, setting off Israeli retaliation that killed four Palestinians.

Palestinian mortar and rocket barrages have hit Jewish settlements in Gaza daily, and militants have resumed firing homemade Qassam rockets at Israeli towns just outside Gaza. Israeli forces returned fire, wounding several Palestinians.

Palestinians said one gunman was killed in the exchange of fire, and a civilian was also killed, they said.

A Palestinian militant giving his name only as Abu Majad said gunmen attacked the Israeli position after the blast. He claimed responsibility in the name of the Fatah Hawks, an offshoot of the mainstream Fatah Party, and the violent Islamic Hamas.

A Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 1.5 tons of explosives were set off in the blast. Masked Hamas gunmen later told of the kidnap attempt and said a second, smaller bomb was detonated after the first one.

Abu Majad said the explosives-filled tunnel was 800m long. He said the attack was retaliation for what he called "the assassination" of Arafat, who died in a French hospital. Some Palestinians claim he was poisoned by Israel.

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