4 Palestinians with explosives-laden horses killed

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Gaza militants equipped with explosives-laden horses approached the Israeli border early Monday, igniting a battle that left four gunmen dead, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

The incident marked a serious flare-up along the border, which has remained tense but relatively quiet since a three-week military offensive in January.

Officials were trying to determine whether the animals were to be used as weapons, or to carry the fighters into Israel. At least one animal was killed in the shootout.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the army prevented a "severe attack" and said the militants might have planned to capture an Israeli soldier.

The Israeli military said the Palestinian fighters approached the border fence between Israel and the Hamas-controlled territory with a number of trucks carrying a total of five horses. The militants were planting bombs along the fence when they were spotted and fired on by Israeli infantrymen. The Israelis also employed tanks and helicopter gunships, the military said.

The carcass of a horse was visible at the scene, along with the charred remains of three trucks.

Gaza is enclosed by a security fence. But the attack occurred near Nahal Oz, a crossing used to ship fuel into Gaza and a target of past militant attacks.

Palestinian militants have never staged attacks on horseback, though other animals have been used as weapons. In 2001, a booby-trapped donkey cart exploded near troops in Gaza, and in 2003 Palestinian militants sent an explosives-laden donkey toward troops near the West Bank town of Bethlehem. The donkeys were the only fatalities in both incidents.

Ismail Haniyeh, who heads Gaza's Hamas government, praised the militants as "martyrs" and said the violence confirmed Israel's "aggressive intentions" toward the Palestinians.

According to a Hamas Web site, the militants behind Monday's operation belonged to an unknown group calling itself the Soldiers of the Companions of God.

Sporadic violence has continued along the border since Israel ended its devastating three-week offensive against Hamas in January.

Most of those incidents, including attacks against Israeli patrols and bombs planted along the fence, have been initiated by small militant groups and not by Hamas, the Islamic organization that has controlled Gaza for two years.

Hamas appears to be intent on maintaining quiet, both to avoid another Israeli incursion and in hopes of easing and Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza's borders. The embargo has caused widespread hardship and shortages of basic items in Gaza.

The Israeli offensive killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 900 civilians, according to Palestinian officials and human rights groups. It also destroyed thousands of homes and heavily damaged Gaza's infrastructure.

Israel says the death toll was lower and that most of the dead were armed militants.

In late May, Israel's air force dropped leaflets warning Gazans to "stay away for your own safety" from the border fence, saying anyone approaching the area risked being shot.

A young sea turtle is seen on Runduma island, Wakatobi. AFP/File/Adek Berry