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Monday, March 10, 2008   Free Headline Alerts

Iranian and Syrian trainers killed by Israeli strike on Gaza missiles

JERUSALEM — Israeli military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin told the Cabinet last week that an air force strike killed several Iranian, Lebanese and Syrian instructors sent to improve Hamas's military and missile capabilities.

An Israeli soldier in an armored army vehicle after an operation in the Gaza Strip on March 2. AP/Sebastian Scheiner
Yadlin said the death of the instructors marked a serious blow to the Hamas regime.

The air force strike took place on Feb. 28 in which five people were killed in a truck filled with more than 100 missiles in the Gaza Strip. Officials said the casualties included Iranian, Lebanese and Syrian military trainers.

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The report was made during heavy fighting between the Israeli military and Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip in an operation dubbed "Hot Winter." At least 20 Palestinians were killed in fighting in northern Gaza, most of them in the Palestinian refugee camp of Jabalya.

On March 3, Israeli troops, amid U.S. criticism, left the Gaza Strip in a move hailed by Hamas as a major victory. Palestinian gunners continued to fire Katyusha rockets toward the Israeli city of Ashkelon, which contains strategic facilities.

Officials said between 50 and 100 weapons specialists and combat trainers entered the Gaza Strip in late January. They said most of the instructors were Palestinians trained in Iran and Lebanon as well as in Al Qaida camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

They said the specialists were sent to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and entered the Gaza Strip after the Hamas regime destroyed much of the 12-kilometer border wall on Jan. 23.

"These people are experts in weapons production, bombs and missiles, and will solve Hamas's problems in extending the range and improving the accuracy of missiles and rockets," an official said.

On Feb. 26, military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin briefed the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on the repercussions of the two-week breach in the Egyptian-Gaza border, which enabled 700,000 Palestinians to enter Sinai. Yadlin said the Hamas regime was significantly bolstered by the influx of specialists and weapons in the Gaza Strip in January and early February.

Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said Hamas has been using civilians to transport missiles. Ashkenazi told the Cabinet that Hamas was found to have placed a Katyusha rocket in the wagon of an elderly man.

On March 2, Hamas continued to fire the BM-21 Grad rocket, a Katyusha variant, into Israel. Several of the 122 mm rockets, with a range of more than 20 kilometers, landed in the southern Israeli cities of Ashkelon and Netivot.

Officials said the Cabinet led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been discussing a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip and the destruction of the Hamas regime. They said Defense Minister Ehud Barak has won approval from most of the Cabinet.

"We have to be organized for it to get more serious, because the big ground operation is real, tangible," Barak said.

Officials, however, said Olmert would not decide to resume the ground operation in Gaza without approval from the United States.

"When the green light is given for the Israel Defense Forces to go in with its full force," Barak said, "the goals will be first of all, halting Kassam fire; second, reducing weapons smuggling from Egypt; third, weakening Hamas rule, and, under the right circumstances, overthrowing the Hamas government, and, in the long term, complete severance from the Gaza Strip."

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