Gaza clashes leave 5 militants, 3 Israeli soldiers dead

Israel Materials 16 April 2008 19:32 (UTC +04:00)

(dpa) - The volatile Gaza Strip erupted into violence again Wednesday, with three Israeli soldiers and five Palestinian militants killed in separate gunfights in the morning.

It was the second outbreak of violence in one week in the battered salient and can be expected to spur calls for a ceasefire, which Israel and the Palestinian militias have so far been unable and unwilling to reach.

The three soldiers were killed in an early-morning firefight with gunmen, who had been spotted approaching the heavily-guarded fence which separates the Strip from Israel, just south of the Nahal Oz crossing point, east of Jebalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip.

Two of the fatalities were killed immediately as the force came under heavy fire and the third succumbed to his wounds some hours later.

A military spokeswoman in Tel Aviv said the army was investigating the circumstances of the clash and the Ha'aretz daily said a preliminary probe revealed that an "operation mishap" occurred as the soldiers were pursuing the gunmen.

It is unusual for three Israeli soldiers to die in a single clash with Palestinian militants and there were no immediate reports of Palestinian casualties in the clash.

Nahal Oz, the Gaza Strip's main entry point for fuel deliveries, was attacked one week ago by Palestinian militants who killed two Israeli civilians working there.

Earlier Wednesday, four Hamas militants were killed, and five others wounded, as they confronted an Israeli army force in eastern Gaza City.

Hamas' armed wing said it fired around 57 mortars at the force consisting of tanks, armoured vehicles and bulldozers.

An Israeli military spokeswoman in Tel Aviv said the force was on a "routine operation" against the infrastructure which allowed missiles and mortars to be fired from the area at southern Israel.

She confirmed the force had come under fire.

Residents of Sheja'eya neighbourhood said the Israeli operation began at around midnight, with explosions and gunfire lasting for the rest of the night.

They said the Israeli force pulled back across the border in the early hours of the morning, having stormed several houses and detained a senior Hamas member, who is the brother of Khalil el- Hayya, a Hamas leader in parliament.

They said dozens of Hamas militants clashed with Israeli soldiers, launching rocket-propelled grenades and mortars at the Israeli army tanks and vehicles. An Israeli military spokesman charged that the Israeli force also came under fire from militants holed up in a nearby mosque.

One soldier was wounded in the clashes, the military said.

The Islamic Jihad meanwhile said in a statement that one of its militants was shot dead in an exchange of fire with Israeli soldiers near the borders between the southern Strip town of Rafah and Israel.

Overnight, an Islamic Jihad militant was also killed - and two bystanders wounded - when an Israeli aircraft hit him with a missile as he rode his motorcycle in Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza Strip.

Egypt and the Palestinian Authority have been trying to broker a truce between Israel and the Palestinian groups, but their efforts have so far been unsuccessful.

Israel fears the militias will use any lull in fighting to rearm and reorganise, and at the same time rejects the militants' demands that a ceasefire apply to the West Bank as well, where it conducts nightly arrest raids.

Israel is also hesitant about any move which could be construed as giving, however indirectly, legitimacy to the Hamas administration which has ruled the Gaza Strip since last June when its gunmen routed forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.