Israeli troops kill five militants in Gaza clashes

The Israeli military killed at least five Palestinian militants and injured six others during clashes in the southern and central Gaza Strip Friday, medical officials said, dpa reported.

The fighting in southern Gaza erupted when an Israeli force crossed into the Strip near the Sufa border crossing, prompting heavy exchanges of fire with local militants, who confronted the force with machine-gun fire and mortar shells, an Israeli military spokeswoman said.

She said an Israeli aircraft fired a missile at a group of militants armed with anti-tank missiles as they were approaching the ground force. Three Hamas militants were killed, said the armed wing of the radical Islamic movement ruling Gaza. An Israeli soldier was also moderately injured in the fighting.

In central Gaza, east of the al-Bureij refugee camp, Israeli soldiers stationed on the border spotted two militants planting a bomb at the border fence. The two gunmen then opened fire at the soldiers, who returned fire and shot them, the military said. Islamic Jihad's armed wing, the al-Quds Brigades, said the dead were two of its members.

The Israeli military later withdrew from al-'Omour, near the Suffa crossing on the eastern outskirts of the southern Gaza towns of Khan Younis and Rafah.

The spokeswoman said the force entered to act against militants involved in rocket and mortar attacks at Israeli targets on and near the border. The Israeli military said six suspected militants were taken in for questioning, but released. The troops also razed land used as cover by the rocket and mortar launchers, residents said.

The Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) and the Islamic Jihad meanwhile also said they launched three mortar shells at an Israeli military outpost on the north-eastern Gaza border, and four at the Kissufim border crossing in the south.

The latest violence comes after a Hamas delegation returned from inconclusive, Egyptian-mediated ceasefire talks in Cairo. Hamas officials have said that Israel has thus far rejected their demands that it lift its tight economic blockade of the Strip as part of any truce deal.

They said Israel instead wants "calm for calm," without including the issue of the border crossings in the truce. Israel has said it will stop its its military operations in Gaza, as soon as rocket and mortar attacks from the Strip end, as well as weapons smuggling.

It also wants the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, a soldier snatched in a cross-border raid and held captive in Gaza since June 2005, to be part of a truce deal.

On Thursday morning, after the truce talks ended, for now at least, with no deal, a truck loaded with 4 tons of explosives blew up some 100 metres from the Israeli side of northern Gaza's Erez border crossing.

The truck was stopped prematurely and only the suicide driver was killed, but it caused a huge blast heard in all of northern Gaza. Residents of the nearby village of Netiv Ha'asara, in southern Israel, reported shattered windows from the blast. The explosion left a gaping hole in the ground and caused serious damage.

The Islamic Jihad and a militant off-shoot of President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement claimed responsibility, identifying the suicide bomber as Ibrahim Nasser, 24, from Jabaliya in northern Gaza.

Hamas, for its part, organized a demonstration of hundreds of supporters Thursday at another key crossing point, east of Gaza City, which turned violent. A 22-year-old Palestinian was killed and at least 17 injured. Israel said it fired at gunmen who opened fire from within the crowd at the soldiers guarding the Karni commercial crossing.

Militants have threatened to break Israel's blockade by force, if it does not agree to include the issue in the truce negotiations. They have stepped up their attacks on the crossing points, but Israel has accused them of trying to force it to tighten the blockade even further, by endangering the soldiers guarding and civilians working at the crossings.

Late last month, Hamas militants carried out a synchronized, double attack on the Kerem Shalom and Kissufim crossings, using three booby-trapped cars, and injuring 16 Israeli soldiers. An attack on the Nahal Oz fuel crossing by Palestinian gunmen in early April also left two civilian truck drivers dead.

Israel imposed the blockade in response to near daily rocket and mortar attacks from the Strip at its southern towns and villages.

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