Israeli troops killed in Gaza blast-Witnesses
An explosion ripped through an Israeli military vehicle in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, killing several soldiers during a raid in which troops shot dead three Palestinians, witnesses said.
Palestinian witnesses said they saw the armored personnel carrier torn apart by an explosion as Israeli troops backed by tanks and helicopters raided the Zeitoun area of Gaza City.
The militant Islamic group Hamas said its fighters ambushed the vehicle, stopping it with an anti-tank missile at a spot where they had previously planted bombs.
"The vehicle blew up and caught fire, and all the Zionists inside were killed," Hamas said in a statement, adding that it had film of the attack showing dismembered bodies.
Israeli sources said several Israelis were killed and others wounded in an explosion near Gaza City. But the army declined immediate comment except to say that key details remained under military censorship.
Israeli troops fought fierce gunbattles against militants in Zeitoun, known as a stronghold of Hamas, the main group behind a campaign of suicide bombings against Israelis.
Sharon, now preparing an amended Gaza pullout plan, has vowed to continue to strike against militant groups.
Three Palestinians, at least two of them gunmen, were killed in the fighting and at least 40 people were wounded, witnesses and medics said.
"A force has entered the (Zeitoun neighborhood) and we are carrying out a pinpoint operation against the terrorist infrastructure," an Israeli military source said.
The Gaza military operation began when Israeli undercover forces sped into Zeitoun in civilian taxis and jeeps, the witnesses said.
They were later joined by tanks and armored personnel carriers as helicopters fired their machine guns and loud explosions echoed across Gaza City.
Israeli Army Radio said troops destroyed five workshops where Qassam rockets used by militants against Jewish settlements in Gaza and towns in southern Israel were being made.
Troops surrounded homes belonging to militants from the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups and blew off the doors of several buildings, where they set up rooftop observation posts, witnesses said.
"We condemn with the strongest possible terms the Israeli military escalation," said Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat. "The escalation is only a part of Israel's campaign to continue the path of violence and confrontation."
Earlier in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority said it planned to hold its first municipal elections, in an apparent concession to legislators who have long been pressing for an end to corruption in city halls.
Palestinian officials said the balloting would begin in the usually peaceful city of Jericho in August and be completed in the 127 other municipal districts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip within a year.
But Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie said a general election, last held in 1996 and part of reforms sought by the international community, would have to await an Israeli troop pullout from areas seized after an uprising began in 2000.
Mayoral elections were last held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1980s under the auspices of Israeli occupation authorities. Both areas came under limited Palestinian self-rule after interim peace agreements in the early 1990s.