IAF Hits Gaza Tunnels in Wake of Bombing Attempt by Sea

Palestinians claim responsibility for attempted attack, say more explosive-laden barrels in sea.

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Israeli F-16s carried out an air strike late Tuesday against underground smuggling tunnels at the Gaza Strip-Egypt border, in response to two explosive ?laden barrels that washed up on beaches in Ashdod and Ashkelon the previous day, an Israeli army spokesman said.

The spokesman confirmed the attacks took place saying the air strikes targeted two sites where tunnels were dug to help gunmen infiltrate from Islamist Hamas-ruled Gaza into Israel and to smuggle in weapons from Egypt.

Palestinian militants from the Israeli-blockaded territory claimed responsibility for what Israel described as an unusual type of attempted attack. Most attacks from Gaza in the past few years have been by rocket shootings at Israeli towns.

The Islamic Jihad group said it had floated the explosives out to sea in a joint operation with two other groups including the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement.

Popular Resistance Committees spokesman Abu Saed said that the barrels were meant to avenge the January 20 slaying in Dubai of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a veteran Hamas operative who Israeli defense officials say was involved in smuggling rockets into Gaza.

Israeli police cordoned off beaches, ordered surfers out of the water and deployed robotic bomb squads along a large swath of southern Israel's coastline after two explosives-laden barrels washed up on shore.

Israel's attacks on the Gazan tunnels came shortly after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a news conference alongside Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that Israel would respond to the explosives found on the country's Mediterranean beaches.

Israel said that Gaza Strip militants are also using tunnels to smuggle Iranian-supplied weapons and explosives into the Gaza Strip.

Police continue to search for explosives

The police will continue to deploy large forces to look for additional bombs, at least through the end of this week. Tuesday, the police operations branch met with representatives of the Navy and intelligence agencies to evaluate the situation. The police will patrol the beaches, also using helicopters and on horseback.

The police called on the public to be alert for suspicious objects, especially on the beaches. In addition, the police asked the public not to visit beaches on the southern coast near where the explosive barrels were found.

The police said storms expected today would keep most people away from the beaches, but the coming storm could wash any other possible barrels ashore.

The police kept the public away from beaches Tuesday at Zikim, Ashkelon, Nitzanim and Ashdod.

"As far as the city of Ashkelon is concerned, this is an entirely new direction and we are following the handling of the matter," Mayor Benny Vaknin said yesterday. "I call on all residents to be alert and prepared, but not to panic."

Ashdod Mayor Yehiel Lankry awarded a citation to Avihai Nakash, the municipal employee who discovered the explosive barrel on the beach in Ashdod

Earlier Tuesday, Israeli radio reported that a homemade rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip toward southern Israel. No damage or casualties were reported in the rocket attack, and there was no claim of responsibility.

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