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The Israel Navy opened fire on an armed squad of five Palestinians wearing diving suits and apparently on their way to attack Israeli targets, the Israel Defense Forces said yesterday morning.

An army source told Haaretz that at about 4:30 A.M. yesterday, naval commandos identified and fired on a boat carrying five armed Palestinians heading north from waters off the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip.

Gaza sources reported that four Palestinians were killed. Hamas later confirmed the deaths and said a fifth Palestinian was missing - although conflicting reports from Gaza claimed that at least two of the five-member squad had survived.

Four bodies were retrieved and taken to a hospital in central Gaza, said Moawiya Hassanain, a Palestinian health official. Two of the dead had suffered multiple gunshots to the head, Hassanain said.

Other Palestinian sources told Haaretz that the militants were members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, an extremist offshoot of the Fatah faction led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The militants were training for a rare attempt at a seaborne attack on Israel when they encountered Israeli forces, the sources said.

The IDF said there were no Israeli casualties.

An unnamed military official told Army Radio that the operation was a boost for the Navy's elite commando unit, Shayetet 13, which has come under international scrutiny since killing nine activists in a raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla last week.

"This will be a shot in the arm for the commandos after the hard week they have been through," the official said.

Also on Monday morning, an Israeli aircraft fired a missile at a target in the northern Gaza Strip, killing one, Palestinian sources said.

In January, a number of barrels packed with explosives washed ashore in Israel after apparently being launched from Gaza. The Gaza-based militant group Islamic Jihad later claimed responsibility for launching the "bomb barrels," none of which exploded.