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Friday, 15 February, 2002, 16:08 GMT
Israel investigates Gaza tank blast
An Israeli tank in Gaza
Israel will have to review its reliance on heavy armour
The Israeli army has launched an investigation into a roadside bomb attack in the Gaza Strip that destroyed one of its most heavily armed battle tanks, killing three soldiers.

Paramedics evacuate one of the soldiers who was injured in the blast
Three soldiers were killed and two wounded in the blast
It was the first time that Palestinian militants had used such a powerful anti-armour device in 16 months of conflict.

Israeli commentators described the attack on the Israeli-made Merkava 3 tank, which was called in after a Jewish settler convoy was attacked by Palestinian gunmen, as a severe blow to a symbol of Israel's military might.

And in a further setback for the Israeli army, the commander of an elite unit was killed on Friday in the West Bank village of Saida, north of Tulkarm.

Military sources said the commander of the undercover unit, 34-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Eyal Weiss, died when a wall damaged by Israeli forces collapsed on him.

The incident happened after Israeli tanks and troops, backed by helicopters, raided Saida in a hunt for militants.

One Palestinian man was killed in the ensuing gun battle.

Troops destroyed a house belonging to a member of the radical Islamic Jihad group, according to Palestinian sources.

Three Islamic Jihad members were arrested in Saida and another village near Jenin, Israel radio reported.

The BBC's Barbara Plett in Jerusalem says the incursion is not being seen as a retaliation for the attack on the tank, but rather part of an ongoing Israeli effort to arrest suspected militants in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian firing gun at funeral of man killed during Israeli incursion
Palestinians are angry over Israeli incursions
A militant group reportedly made up of members of both Hamas and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction has claimed responsibility for Thursday's attack on the Jewish settler convoy near Netzarim, south-east of Gaza City.

The Salahadin Brigade, the military wing of the Popular Resistance Committees group, said the attack was in revenge for the killing of six Palestinians in Israeli incursions in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday.

The Merkava 3 tank had been called in as reinforcement after the convoy, which was being guarded by soldiers, came under heavy fire from gunmen who then set off an explosive device.

A powerful second blast penetrated the tank, toppled it on its side and blew off its heavy turret.

'Spectre of Lebanon'

Commentators said it was clear that Palestinian militants had studied army procedures and planted the bomb where they thought the tank would pass.

Our correspondent says Israel will have to review its strategy of freely moving into Palestinian Authority areas, relying on heavy armour for protection.

The attack also raised the spectre of Lebanon.

This is the kind of sophisticated operation that the Hezbollah militia used to carry out against Israeli forces when they occupied the south of the country.

European efforts

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, currently on a three-day visit to the troubled region, was holding talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials on Friday.

Mr Fischer was not able to meet Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been ill with flu since his return from the United States last week.

Mr Fischer's visit followed a three day visit by UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

On Thursday, Mr Fischer said that the door to negotiations in the Middle East had been closed and the keys lost.

The BBC's Caroline Hawley in Jerusalem
"The attack happened just hours after the arrival of the German Foreign Minister"
The BBC's Barbara Plett
"The attack in Gaza took the army by surprise"
See also:

13 Feb 02 | Middle East
Analysis: EU split on Mid-East
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