Published: 2006/11/03 11:34:11 GMT
Gaza women end mosque stand-off
A siege at a mosque in the Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun has ended after Israeli forces entered the compound and found no-one there, Israel's army says.
An Israeli military spokesman told the BBC they believe the dozen Palestinian gunmen escaped by mingling with a crowd of women who had formed a human shield.
The women went to the mosque after an appeal on Hamas radio. Two were reportedly killed by Israeli gunfire.
Israel entered Beit Hanoun on Wednesday to stop rocket attacks, it said.
Rocket attacks by militants against towns close to the Gaza border, including Sderot and Ashkelon, have continued since Israel pulled its troops out of Gaza in 2005.
In one of the biggest operations in the Gaza Strip in recent months, Israeli troops moved in and sealed the town off.
Twenty Palestinians and an Israeli soldier died in the fighting that ensued. Many of the 20 Palestinians killed were gunmen, but a four-year-old boy died from his wounds overnight.
A tense stand-off developed after Israeli forces surrounded the mosque, where Palestinian gunmen had taken refuge along with about 60 others.
Witnesses said bulldozers demolished a wall as the Israelis tried to force those inside to surrender and there were exchanges of fire between Israeli forces and the gunmen.
However, following an appeal on Hamas radio, over 100 women approached the compound in groups.
Running to safety
"We risked our lives to free our sons," Um Mohammed, a woman in her 40s, told the AFP news agency afterwards.
"Hundreds of us entered the mosque and surrounded the resistance fighters to protect them," 21-year-old Nidaa al-Radih said.
With the gunmen shielded within their midst the women ran to an area north-west of the town which is clear of Israeli troops.
There have been reports that the Israeli soldiers fired on the groups of women. Two women are reported to have been killed.
Hamas radio has since reported that all of the militants in the mosque had escaped and were uninjured.
The BBC's Middle East analyst Roger Hardy says that Israel's most immediate aim is to prevent rocket attacks against its territory, but beyond that it wants to strike a decisive blow at the militant group Hamas.
Israeli officials are convinced Hamas has been acquiring new weapons and wants to turn Gaza into an even stronger base for attacks against them, just as the Lebanese group Hezbollah did on their northern border.
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