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Wednesday, September 1, 1999 Published at 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK

World: Middle East

Hamas says it killed hitch-hikers

Hamas is active in the Palestinian territories

The armed wing of the Islamic movement Hamas has said it murdered two Israeli hitch-hikers whose bodies were found in northern Israel earlier this week.

"One of our armed groups killed two Zionist settlers in the Megiddo area in the north of occupied Palestine on Monday," read a statement issued by the group.

Sharon Steinmetz, 21, and Yehezkel Shai Pinpater, 26, were found dead on Monday on Israeli territory near the autonomous Palestinian town of Jenin.

The Israeli Government has declined to comment on Hamas' statement until a police investigation is completed.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has warned peacemaking would come to a halt if militants were free to attack Israel.

Supporters arrested

[ image: Hamas said it would not be discouraged by recent arrests of its members]
Hamas said it would not be discouraged by recent arrests of its members
The Hamas statement said the recent arrest of Hamas supporters by Palestinian police "will push us towards carrying out our 'jihad' (holy war) march to the end".

Palestinian police have arrested nearly 100 Hamas members in the last two weeks, in connection with alleged attempts to launch attacks against Israelis.

Hamas opposes moves to revive the Middle East peace process in its current form.

Earlier this week Jordanian security forces closed down Hamas' office in Amman and arrested several members of the organisation.

A senior Hamas official in Palestinian-ruled Gaza said the closure was unfortunate, but would not affect Hamas' activities.

"It is possible to move the offices of the movement someplace else," Mahmoud al-Zahar said.

"The strength and body of the group exists in Palestine."

Israel had repeatedly asked Jordan, its main ally in the Arab world, to close the offices.

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