Israel launches Gaza air strikes amid reports of 'security zone'

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The Independent Online

The Israeli Air Force launched missiles at sites and buildings in northern Gaza yesterday, which they said were used to plan and execute the Qassam rocket attacks that have continued to hit Israel this week.

The helicopter-launched missiles hit two offices which the Israel Defence Forces said were used by units of the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade "involved both in planning and firing rockets at Israel".

The attacks came amid reports that Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, had approved a "security zone" in northern Gaza across which heavy artillery fire and air strikes would be used to stop the firing of Qassam rockets.

The IDF said it had not yet been asked to implement such a zone, which leaks said would involve the dropping of leaflets to residents of two substantial northern Gaza towns, Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya, warning them to stay at home to ensure not being hit in the attacks.

Yesterday's strikes hit roads in and around Beit Lahiya and a bridge in Beit Hanous, said to be used by militants to reach Qassam launching sites at the end of the town across the border from the Israeli town of Sderot. Israeli fears that the range of the Qassam rockets has been extended were reinforced this month when a rocket landed close to the power plant of the city of Ashkelon.

Three rockets landed in a residential area of a northern Israeli town near the Lebanese border yesterday, damaging some property but causing no injuries. The projectiles landed in the town of Kiryat Shemona. It was not clear whether the explosions were caused by Katyusha rockets or mortar fire.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Both Hezbollah guerrillas and Palestinian militants are known to operate in nearby southern Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Jewish settlers began setting up 13 makeshift settlement outposts in the West Bank as an act of defiance ahead of the 28 March Israeli elections. Mr Sharon has yet to dismantle existing settlement outposts.

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