Israelis seeking troops' remains

Palestinian militants kill 6 soldiers, then claim to have their body parts


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Israeli troops were on a grim house-to-house search for their comrades' remains here last night, after Palestinian militants blew up an Israeli troop carrier, killing six soldiers, and then said they had made off with some of the body parts.

At least seven Palestinians were also killed, and dozens were injured, during an Israeli raid that began overnight Monday as a mission to destroy what the army called weapons factories. Israeli forces unleashed machine-gun fire from tanks, and rockets from helicopter gunships.

For the Israeli army, the six casualties represented the highest loss of life during a mission in at least 18 months, and an embarrassing reversal for a type of operation that had become almost routine.

Palestinians said that they hoped to trade the soldiers' body parts for prisoners held by Israel, though Israel immediately rejected any such exchange. On a blood-soaked sheet of brown paper, gunmen displayed for reporters what appeared to be brain matter and bits of flesh.

The militants "were able to take parts of bodies - hands, brains," said Salama Hamad, 32, a gunman from the group Hamas, as he paused on the fringes of the fighting here yesterday. "We're going to ask for an exchange of prisoners."

Similar tactics were used by the Lebanese guerrilla organization Hezbollah during Israel's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in a unilateral Israeli withdrawal four years ago.

A second militant group, Islamic Jihad, also claimed responsibility for destroying the Israeli vehicle and seizing soldiers' remains. Together with a third group, Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, it issued a statement saying that it had conditions for returning the remains, but it did not disclose them.

Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, ruled out negotiations over the body parts.

"This is nothing that Israel's going to negotiate about," he said. Referring to the removal of human remains, he added, "This is the most despicable thing."

The commander of Israel's southern front, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, said that troops would stay here until they found the soldiers' remains, as well as pieces of the armored personnel carrier.

"We are checking every roof and every balcony to find the remnants of the APC and the bodies of our soldiers," he said.

Gissin said the troops would stay "until we exhaust all the possibilities to return the bodies, to bring them a decent burial in Israel."

The Israeli military turned to the Red Cross for help in locating and retrieving the soldiers' remains, said Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the organization.

He added that the Gaza office of the Red Cross was checking its contacts, but that "we have nothing at this point."

Separately, Palestinian officials and journalists said that the governing Palestinian Authority was trying to suppress television footage of the soldiers' remains, out of concern it would further inflame the confrontation and darken Palestinians' image.

Sharon summoned his top security advisers for a meeting yesterday evening to plan reprisal measures.

In a speech to the Israeli parliament yesterday, Sharon said, "We are battling a brutal and inhuman enemy, which we will hunt in any place it acts or hides."

Israel has intensified its military pressure on Gaza as Sharon seeks support for his plan to unilaterally withdraw the 7,500 Israeli settlers who live here and the soldiers who guard them. About 1.3 million Palestinians live in Gaza.

The violence Monday seemed likely to widen the gap between those Israelis who view any withdrawal as a prize for militants, and those who view the Gaza settlements as a disastrous mistake.

Israeli armored forces raided Gaza City's southern Zeitoun neighborhood at about midnight Monday, in what the army said was a search-and-destroy mission aimed at shops manufacturing crude rockets for Hamas.

Hamas frequently fires such rockets at the Gaza settlements and over Gaza's fenced boundaries into Israel.

The soldiers seized rooftop sniper positions and fired down at Palestinian militants as they grabbed their semiautomatic rifles and poured into the narrow streets.

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