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Fishing boat bomb targets navy patrol off Gaza coast

AN unmanned Palestinian fishing boat laden with hundreds of pounds of explosives blew up off the coast of Gaza yesterday in what the Israeli military said was an attempt to attack a naval patrol in the area.

There were no casualties, but the incident threatened to upset a relative calm in the volatile territory ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas. Israel maintains a tight naval presence around the Gaza Strip, part of a larger blockade of the area aimed at preventing arms from reaching Hamas.

Israel's military chief, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, said the boat was spotted through heavy fog early in the day by a naval patrol. He said the crew monitored the boat and it exploded about 650 yards away from the naval vessel. "Our estimate is that it was a few hundred kilograms of explosives," Ashkenazi said in Tel Aviv. "We estimate that it was an attempt to harm Israeli naval vessels that I'm glad did not succeed."

Military officials said they were still trying to determine how the explosives were detonated.

The army said the incident occurred off the coast of northern Gaza, near the Israeli border. The explosion was so powerful it could be heard in Gaza City, several kilometers to the south.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

In 2002, two Palestinian militants on an explosive-packed boat blew themselves up next to an Israeli patrol vessel, killing themselves and wounding four naval crewmen. Islamic Jihad, a small group backed by Syria and Iran, claimed responsibility.

The Israel-Gaza border area has been tense but relatively quiet since Israel ended a three-week military offensive in January.

The operation, meant to end years of Hamas rocket attacks and arms smuggling into Gaza, killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, according to Palestinian human rights workers. It also destroyed thousands of homes and heavily damaged Gaza's infrastructure.

Israel says the death toll was lower, and has blamed Hamas for heavy civilian casualties, accusing the militant group of using residential areas for cover.

The offensive ended in an unofficial truce. Since then, there has been only sporadic fighting.


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