Israel kills 2 militants in Gaza air strikes

Tue Mar 4, 2008 4:59am EST

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Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - Israel's air force killed two Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, one of them a rocket squad member who had launched a salvo across the border, militant and medical sources said.

The air strikes followed a five-day Israeli assault on the ruling Hamas Islamists in the northern Gaza Strip which killed more than 100 Palestinians, many of them civilians, as well as two soldiers.

The offensive prompted Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to suspend peace talks with Israel. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due to visit later on Tuesday to try to reconcile Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Hamas, which has largely held its fire since the Israeli pullback on Monday, said one of its gunmen died in a missile strike in Gaza City, near the border with the Jewish state.

An earlier air force attack killed a member of an Islamic Jihad rocket squad in the northern Gaza Strip, and wounded one of his comrades, the Palestinian militant group said.

Islamic Jihad said its men launched seven rockets at the Israeli border town of Sderot. The salvo damaged a home but caused no casualties, an Israeli military spokeswoman said, confirming that the air force then struck the rocket crew and later the gunman in Gaza City.

Israel says Hamas, which routed Abbas's forces to take control of the Gaza Strip last June, bears responsibility for all cross-border attacks from the territory. Olmert has vowed no let-up in military action to curb the rocket strikes.

"These daily and lethal assaults on our civilians will be met with our unbending resolve to continue our defensive measures in the Gaza Strip, to enable Israelis to live a life free of Palestinian rocket attacks on their homes, schools and city centers," said David Baker, an Olmert spokesman.

Israel said its ground offensive had succeeded in stemming rocket salvoes by Hamas. But Hamas, which claimed victory after Israel withdrew, denied that its fighters felt deterred but it did not claim any rocket attacks since Monday afternoon.

"There is no decision to stop rocket firing," said Abu Ubaida, spokesman for Hamas's armed wing. "If there is a reduction in rocket firing, it is a tactical matter and not related to any political decision."

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Keith Weir)

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