Fri, Oct 20, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Israel steps up search for Palestinian arms tunnels

SWISS CHEESE Israeli authorities allege that militants have smuggled large quantities of weapons over and under the border since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last summer


In a first since Israel's pullout from Gaza last summer, Israeli tanks and infantry have taken up positions on the Egypt-Gaza border, killing two Palestinian gunmen and surrounding the Rafah border terminal, as the army broadened its search for arms smuggling tunnels.

Palestinian security officials said Israeli troops and tanks moved into the border town of Rafah before dawn on Wednesday and took over a section of the frontier.

The army said Israeli forces were widening the scope of an operation in southern Gaza aimed at uncovering tunnels used by Palestinian militants to smuggle weapons from Egypt. The army said on Wednesday it has uncovered five tunnels so far.

Israel has sent forces in and out of Gaza and stepped up airstrikes against suspected militants and weapons caches since Hamas-linked militants tunneled under the border and attacked an Israeli army post, killing two soldiers and captured another in late June.

On Wednesday morning, Israeli troops killed two Hamas militants as they approached army positions in Rafah, the army and Palestinians said. According to a statement from Hamas, one of the two was a senior militant involved in abducting the Israeli soldier, who remains in captivity.

Israel has charged that militants have smuggled large quantities of weapons over and under the border since Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza last summer.

Captain Noa Meir, an army spokeswoman, said Israel would continue military operations as long as necessary to block the flow of arms -- which she said included guns, explosives and anti-tank rockets -- into Gaza.

"The tunnels are part of a production line meant to kill Israelis, and it's our job to stop it," Meir said.

Briefing reporters during a visit to Moscow, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the operation was limited.

"We have no intention of staying anywhere in Gaza," he said.

The Palestinian officials said troops carried out house-to-house searches and bulldozers leveled agricultural land near the border. Troops also surrounded the Rafah border terminal, where about 60 Palestinian security personnel remained, the officials said. The crossing, the only land bridge from Gaza to the outside world without passing through Israel, has been closed most of the time since violence flared in June.

Meanwhile, internal Palestinian violence continued on Wednesday against the background of a power struggle between the ruling Islamic Hamas and rival Fatah.

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