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Tuesday, 18 February, 2003, 08:33 GMT
Gaza bomb kills four Israeli soldiers
Rescuers look into damaged tank
Despite rescue efforts all of the crew died
A roadside bomb killed four Israeli soldiers when it blew up a tank near a Jewish settlement in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army says.

Eyewitnesses said the tank burst into flames after it drove over the bomb near the Jewish settlement of Dugit on Saturday.

We are seeing a rise in the number of bombs and warnings of attempted bombings

Brigadier General Almog, Israeli commander in Gaza Strip
The attack occurred at 0830 (0630 GMT) but the Israeli military held back the news for hours until the relatives of those killed had been informed.

The militant Palestinian group Hamas said it had carried out the attack.

"Our brigades managed to detonate a large bomb under a Zionist army Merkava tank at 0830 am north of Beit Lahiya," said a statement sent to news agencies.

It added the attack was revenge for the deaths of two Hamas activists killed near Beit Lahiya by Israeli troops earlier this week.

Click here for map of Gaza Strip

Hours after the attack Palestinian security sources reported that Israeli soldiers using five armoured bulldozers had demolished five Palestinian homes and laid waste to local farmland in Beit Lahiya - a Palestinian town next to Dugit.

Children walk in front of demolished houses in Beit Lahiya
Israeli troops demolished a number of Palestinian houses

The Israeli army said that troops had destroyed two houses and a number of greenhouses in the area because the militants who carried out the tank attack had used nearby Palestinian buildings as cover.

Later on Saturday a 12-year-old boy was amongst four Palestinians wounded during an exchange of gunfire between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops in Rafah in the south of Gaza.

Second device

After the explosion Palestinians reported seeing thick black smoke rising from the burning tank as soldiers with water hoses tried to douse the flames.

An Israeli army spokesman reported that troops had located another bomb close to the scene, but that they had managed to safely defuse the second device.

Palestinian militants have destroyed a number of Israeli Merkava-3 tanks with roadside bombs in the Gaza Strip.

Last March Palestinian militants destroyed a tank killing three soldiers.

The BBC's Jerusalem correspondent Barbara Plett says all the Palestinian militias, not only Hamas, view attacks on military targets like tanks as a legitimate act of resistance against occupation.

Gaza powder keg

There are about 7,000 Jewish settlers living in the Gaza Strip, alongside 1.2 million Palestinians.

They inhabit isolated enclaves that have to be protected by roadblocks, security fencing and Israeli troops.

The Israeli military chief in Gaza, Brigadier General Doron Almog, said that in the 28-months since the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began 439 bombs had been detonated in attacks on Israeli troops in Gaza.

"We are seeing a rise in the number of bombs and warnings of attempted bombings," he said.

"We intend to continue defensive and targeted offensive measures against those who stand behind this incident and others," Brigadier General Almog added.



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