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Israel Strikes at Hamas Training Field, Killing 14

Aircraft and tanks combine in one of the most lethal attacks on the group, which took responsibility for last week's double bombing.

September 07, 2004|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israel carried out one of its deadliest strikes ever against the Palestinian militant group Hamas early today, pounding what it described as a terrorist training field outside Gaza City with fire from tanks, helicopters and warplanes. At least 14 Palestinians were killed and more than two dozen injured.

The withering assault, launched just after midnight, occurred a week after the group claimed responsibility for a double bus bombing in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba. Sixteen Israelis were killed in that attack, the first suicide bombings in Israel in nearly six months.

The Israeli military said in a statement that the field -- a dusty expanse near Gaza's frontier with Israel -- had been used by Hamas to assemble explosive charges and practice setting them off. The military wing of Hamas, Izzidin al-Qassam, acknowledged in a statement that its fighters had been training there.

Chaotic scenes unfolded at Gaza City's main hospital as dozens of bloodied fighters, some of them carrying the bodies of dead and wounded comrades, staggered into the emergency ward. Hundreds of Palestinians quickly gathered outside, chanting cries for vengeance.

"This is an all-out war between us and the Zionists," said Hamas spokesman Mushir Masri. "We see this bloody crime as an aggression against our people and our sons."

Most of the Hamas leadership echelon in Gaza, including the group's founder and spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, has been wiped out by Israeli strikes in the last 18 months. Mid-level commanders and field operatives have been targeted for assassination as well, but this was the first time Israel had managed to strike such a large gathering of the group's fighters.

The field had been under surveillance for more than two weeks, the army said in a statement. It said the field had been used as a staging ground, among other things, for assembling a bomb that a Palestinian tried to carry across the Erez checkpoint into Israel last week.

At least four large explosions -- audible across much of Gaza City -- ripped through the field after Israeli forces opened fire, according to witnesses. Some of the blasts were apparently from bombs being worked on at the site.

Local people converged on the area with flashlights and lanterns to help evacuate the dead and wounded from the field in the Shajaiyeh neighborhood, a Hamas stronghold.

The strike comes against a backdrop of political maneuvering by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to push ahead with his plan to uproot the 21 Jewish settlements of the Gaza Strip. Right-wing opponents have vowed to block the initiative, and some settlers say they will resist any evacuation attempt with force.

Both Israel and the Palestinian leadership have been trying to enlist the aid of Egypt to prevent a security vacuum in the wake of an Israeli pullout. Two senior Egyptian officials -- Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief -- held talks Monday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

The Palestinian Authority foreign minister, Nabil Shaath, said afterward that Egypt was attempting to broker a truce by the various Palestinian armed factions. He added that talks were expected to take place this month, but any participation by Hamas seemed highly unlikely now.

After the Beersheba attacks, Israel threatened to target Hamas leaders based in Damascus, Syria, but Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, said Monday that the two principal figures -- Abu Marzook and Khaled Meshaal -- were believed to have fled Syria for safe haven elsewhere in the Arab world.

"We will chase them down everywhere," Mofaz told Israel's army radio station. Hamas dismissed the threat as propaganda.

Israel is also pressing ahead with construction of the southern leg of a security barrier in the West Bank -- the section closest to Beersheba and other southern towns.

The bombers who struck in Beersheba crossed into Israel from the West Bank town of Hebron, passing through a lightly patrolled expanse of desert.

Special correspondent Fayed abu Shammalah in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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