7 die in Israeli incursion into refugee camp

Gaza dead include boy, 8

troops searching for arms

October 11, 2003|By Henry Chu and Fayed abu Shammalah | Henry Chu and Fayed abu Shammalah,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Israeli forces thrust into a packed Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, sparking a fierce and protracted gunbattle with militants early yesterday that killed seven Palestinians, including an 8-year-old boy, and wounded dozens of others.

The soldiers had come to the militant stronghold in search of tunnels believed to run weapons into Gaza from across the Egyptian border. Israeli security sources said they were acting on intelligence that weapons runners were smuggling in increasingly sophisticated arms.

By the time the violence had subsided in midmorning, six Palestinians were dead, witnesses said. A seventh Palestinian died in shooting that flared up again in the afternoon, hospital officials said.

More than 40 other residents were injured, many of them seriously. Several were hurt when Israeli forces fired a missile into a crowd of people that allegedly contained some of the gunmen, witnesses said.

The Israeli government alleges that Palestinian militias are trying to upgrade their arsenals with shoulder-mounted antiaircraft-missile launchers, heavy artillery and rockets.

Stinger missiles could knock out Israeli helicopter gun ships or military and civilian aircraft, while Katyusha rockets are more accurate and have a longer range than the crude mortars now used by Palestinian guerrillas here.

By last night, the Israeli army said it had uncovered two tunnels - but no weapons. Military sources said the search would continue. Israeli soldiers who took up sniper positions in Palestinian homes told residents that they would be staying for a while, suggesting an extended operation that could last for days.

Palestinian Authority officials in the West Bank condemned the raid as "a criminal act."

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized the Israeli operation as a "disproportionate use of force in densely populated areas."

But the Israeli government defended the raid - dubbed "Operation Root Canal" - which came after two suicide bombings within a week targeting Israelis. A military spokesman said Rafah is the main site of weapons smuggling in Gaza and more than 30 tunnels have been discovered in the area since the beginning of the year.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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