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REUTERS - Israeli soldiers killed four Palestinian gunmen who slipped into southern Israel by sea from the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, the army said.

Hamas, the dominant force in Gaza, claimed responsibility for the infiltration at Zikim beach, which occurred as Israel bombed the Palestinian enclave with the stated purpose of quelling cross-border rocket fire.

Hamas said it was in telephone contact with the commander of the squad that stormed Zikim and that he was exchanging fire with the army.

Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said four gunmen were killed by combined fire from troops, the air force and the navy. Israeli forces were still searching the area. He did not say whether the gunmen had swum in or landed by boat.

Lerner said an Israeli soldier had been wounded in the incident, which he described as rare. The Israeli military keeps Gaza under tight naval cordon.