Israeli troops kill eight Hamas militants

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip Israeli troops clashed with Hamas militants inside the Gaza Strip today, killing eight in fierce fighting that drew in Israeli aircraft, tanks and bulldozers.

It was the second-deadliest day of fighting between the two sides since the Islamic militant group wrested control of Gaza in mid-June. In all, more than 30 Palestinians — nearly all of them militants but including a 12-year-old boy — have been killed in at least five separate Israeli military operations in Gaza since the Hamas takeover.

Troops had ventured about a half-mile inside central Gaza on a routine foray against rocket squads when airmen backing their patrol identified a group of approaching militants, the army said.

The airmen opened fire on the Hamas fighters, sparking a shootout on the ground between the militants and the patrol, the army said.

Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida said its fighters started the battle by opening fire on an Israeli undercover unit.

Witnesses reported a heavy exchange of fire as Israeli tanks and bulldozers moved in, and soldiers took positions on rooftops. Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants hit back with small arms and mortars aimed at the Erez passenger crossing between Israel and Gaza. They also laid mines targeting the soldiers.

Two of the mortar shells landed on the Israeli side of the passage, which has been closed to most traffic since Hamas wrested control of Gaza last month, the army said. No one was injured, but the shells set off a fire in a road at the crossing, the army said.

Hospital officials said six militants were killed in the fighting, and Hamas said all belonged to its group. Among the dead was the Hamas field commander in central Gaza, Hamas TV said.

Israeli aircraft later dropped missiles at militant targets in the area, the army said. Hospital officials said two militants were killed in one of the air strikes. Hamas said both were members of the group.

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