Gaza militants say beach attack to avenge killing

JERUSALEM — Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip today claimed they had sent a series of floating bombs toward Israeli beaches, saying the attempted attacks were meant to avenge the mysterious death of a Hamas operative in Dubai last month.

The militants claimed additional bombs were still floating in the Mediterranean, and Israeli police cordoned off a swath of the country’s coastline while they searched for more explosives.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would “respond” to the attempted attacks.

Police said two barrels, each containing 22 pounds of explosives, washed up late Monday on Israel’s shores. A bomb squad defused one barrel, while the second blew up as a police robot prodded it. No one was hurt.

By today, police were sweeping the entire Israeli coast in jeeps and on horseback. They also shut down a 25-mile beach strip near Gaza, ordering surfers out of the water.

Abu Saed, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, a Gaza faction with close ties to Hamas, said the attack was meant to avenge the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in the Gulf business hub of Dubai.

Hamas and its Iranian patrons have accused Israeli agents of killing al-Mabhouh, a veteran Hamas operative who Israeli defense officials say was involved in smuggling rockets into Gaza.

Israel has refused to comment on the allegations.

“We confirm that there are still many of these charges in the ocean, and they haven’t exploded yet. The Zionist enemy should expect more of these operations from the hands of the Palestinian resistance,” Abu Saed said, standing alongside five other gunmen in military fatigues.

A joint statement from his group and two other small factions — Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades — said they sent eight bombs and detonated them by remote control. Hamas did not sign the statement.

In Jerusalem, Netanyahu accused Hamas, which rules Gaza, of being behind the operation, with support from Iran and Syria.

“We view with great severity the Hamas operation near the Gaza beach and we will respond accordingly,” he said at a news conference with visiting Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. He did not elaborate.

Hamas has dramatically scaled back its own operations against Israel since a devastating Israeli military offensive a year ago, apparently reluctant to provoke further military action. Smaller groups like Abu Saed’s now typically claim responsibility for any attacks.

“The attack was an intended terrorist attack that failed,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. “Police assessed the security situation throughout last night and continue to keep the beaches closed.”

Maritime authorities warned sailors and fishermen to be alert to possible dangers in the waters. In Ashdod, a port city where one of the barrels washed up on Monday, a crane-like robot crawled along the beach, prodding suspicious objects.

“The beach is closed, boats are patrolling the waters, there are no people around, helicopters are in the air looking for more explosive barrels,” restaurant owner Lee Voldberg told Army Radio from Ashdod.

Meir Chakmon, a police spokesman in Ashkelon, said authorities resumed the search at the crack of dawn.

“We think there is a possibility that new explosive devices will surface,” he said. “We don’t know how many are in the sea.” The amount of explosives in the barrels could conceivably sink a small civilian boat but would not be likely to cause serious damage to a warship.

Today, Iran accused Israel of killing the Hamas commander in Dubai, calling the assassination “yet another example of state-sponsored Israeli terrorism.”

The heightened tensions might complicate prisoner-swap negotiations between the two sides, though Ayman Taha, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said the talks — through German and Egyptian mediators — would continue.

“We say that the present circumstances are not appropriate to continue negotiations for a prisoner swap deal, but we don’t say that the negotiations have ceased completely,” Taha said.

The two sides have been trying to reach a deal to trade Israeli Sgt. Gilad Schalit for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Schalit was captured by Hamas-linked militants in June 2006.

Also today, a rocket from Gaza exploded in an open field in southern Israel, causing no injuries or damage. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

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