Four soldiers killed in attack by militants on Israeli army post

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The Independent Online

Two Palestinians armed with grenades and assault rifles stormed an Israeli army post near the Gaza Strip, killing four soldiers before being shot dead in a gun battle, the Israeli military said.

Two soldiers were wounded. It was the first deadly attack on Israelis in nearly a month and dealt a severe blow to US truce efforts.

The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the Qatar–based satellite TV station Al Jazeera. A caller told the station that the assailants were two residents of the Gaza town of Rafah, Mohammed Abu Jamous and Emad Rizzek. Unconfirmed reports said Rizzek is a member of the Palestinian naval police.

The Israeli military said both assailants wore Palestinian police uniforms.

Before dawn Wednesday, the attackers cut through the fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip, and then stormed a nearby army outpost, throwing grenades and firing assault rifles. After the initial attack, an army patrol rushed to the scene to help the soldiers under fire. An Israeli officer and three soldiers were killed in the attack, the army said. One of the two wounded was in serious condition.

The two assailants were killed. The first was killed on the spot, and the second was shot dead after a chase, according to Israeli radio reports.

The post guarded the small Israeli farming village of Kerem Shalom.

There was no Palestinian Authority comment. The Palestinian police denied any of its officers were involved in the attack.

Israeli Foreign Ministry official Arye Mekel said Wednesday's was proof that the Palestinian Authority "has done nothing, or very little, to fight terrorism."

Since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Dec. 16 order to halt all attacks on Israelis, Palestinian security forces have been rounding up a number of suspected militants, including members of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups.

However, Israel has said the Palestinians have not targeted the masterminds of terror attacks. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said Arafat has not abandoned violence, and that the lull was temporary to allow the Palestinians to regroup.

The Israeli allegations were fueled by Israel's interception last week of a weapons shipment allegedly intended for the Palestinian Authority.

Israel has sent intelligence officials to the United States and Europe to press its that the Palestinian Authority was responsible for the ship carrying 50 tons of weapons, including rockets that could have threatened Israeli cities.

On Wednesday, Israel demanded that the Palestinian Authority arrest Fuad Shobaki, head of the finance department in the Palestinian security services, for allegedly funding the arms purchases, radio reports said.

The Palestinian Authority has denied it was behind the smuggling attempt and has promised to investigate whether any of its officials were involved in it.

Sharon said the captured arms shipment showed Iran and the Palestinians were closely collaborating to strike at Israel. The captain of the ship has said that the weapons were loaded in Iran and intended for the Palestinians.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expressed support for Israel's action. "They clearly had very good intelligence that those weapons were going to be used against them and they intercepted the ship by pre–empting that ship from landing and unloading and then providing those weapons to be used against Israel," Rumsfeld said on C–Span television.