Two Palestinian boys, 15, killed in Gaza fighting

Witnesses say teens killed by Israeli strike

March 18, 2004|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Two 15-year-old Palestinian boys were killed in fighting in the Gaza Strip yesterday as Israel continued a new offensive against militants after a double suicide bombing at a busy seaport this week.

The deaths of the boys - who witnesses said were unarmed - brought to six the number of Palestinians killed in air and ground operations that began late Tuesday.

Yesterday's fighting took place in Rafah, a site of frequent combat at the southern end of the Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt.

Israeli forces moved into the town - which Israel says serves as a hub for weapons smuggling - in a convoy of 25 tanks and armored personnel carriers, accompanied by helicopter gunships. The forces encountered gunfire from Palestinian militants.

Israeli officials described the incursion as a targeted hunt for smuggling tunnels. "It's a pinpoint operation," said a military spokesman.

The youths were killed by a helicopter-fired missile - one of three fired in the raid. Palestinian witnesses said the boys, Mosbah Mouafi and Alaa Annajeili, were among a group of residents who were leaving their homes in the sprawling refugee camp.

Israeli officials said that in two cases, helicopters fired on groups of armed men as they planted roadside bombs near Israeli soldiers. One of those strikes killed two Palestinian men before dawn. In the third strike, the helicopter fired at an armed group as it drew close to Israeli forces, according to military officials; witnesses said that strike killed the 15-year-olds.

The army spokesman said an investigation was under way. "We never intentionally fire at civilians," he said.

At least 15 people were reported wounded in yesterday's operations in Rafah. Israeli forces withdrew last night.

Gaza Strip residents remained on edge after a decision Tuesday by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's security Cabinet to step up the military's campaign against armed militants based in the territory.

Israeli officials made clear that their controversial policy of "targeted killings" of militant leaders remained in place. On Tuesday, an Israeli missile hit the home of an Islamic Jihad commander. He escaped, but two other people - a militant and an off-duty police officer - were killed.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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