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2 Palestinian women killed in effort to free gunmen

Israeli troops fire on protesters at besieged mosque

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip -- Hundreds of Palestinian women in robes and head scarves streamed into a Gaza combat zone yesterday to help free gunmen besieged by Israeli troops at a mosque. Two women who came under fire were killed and at least 10 wounded, but some gunmen managed to escape.

The women, many with ties to the Islamic militant group Hamas, left their homes after daybreak in response to appeals on the local Hamas radio station or telephone calls from friends and relatives.

By nightfall, they were celebrated as heroes, an unusual role in a deeply conservative society that tends to keep women on the sidelines. Until yesterday, battling Israeli troops had been men's business in Gaza.

The mosque standoff came on the third day of Israel's fiercest bid in months to halt Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli border communities. The offensive began Wednesday, when Israeli forces took over the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, close to the border with Israel.

In all, 35 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Wednesday, including 17 yesterday. Among those killed yesterday were the two women protesters, a 16-year-old boy, two medics, and at least 10 militants.

Most of the deaths yesterday were a result of a series of Israeli airstrikes after sundown. In the deadliest hit, five Palestinians were killed in an Israeli strike in the Jebaliya refugee camp.

The army said the strikes targeted militants trying to plant explosives or launch rockets.

The Beit Hanoun sweep is different from previous Israeli incursions into Gaza, a senior Israeli military official said. Rather than staying on the outskirts of populated areas, troops are going house to house in Beit Hanoun, sometimes breaking through inner walls to cut down on exposure to gunmen.

In another new tactic for Gaza, troops have rounded up hundreds of men for questioning, releasing most of them but detaining dozens, the army official said. Yesterday evening, for example, soldiers ordered men between the ages of 16 and 46 in Beit Hanoun's Al Masri neighborhood to report to the local agricultural school for questioning.

In the most dramatic episode of the Beit Hanoun incursion, dozens of Palestinian gunmen, many from Hamas, took cover in the Al Nasser Mosque on Thursday and were quickly surrounded by Israeli forces. The two sides exchanged fire throughout the night. An army bulldozer knocked down an outer wall of the mosque, causing the ceiling to collapse.

Yesterday morning, Al Aqsa Radio, the local Hamas station, broadcast appeals to women to come to the rescue of the trapped gunmen. Hundreds responded, many of them Hamas supporters. The women marched toward the mosque, coming under Israeli fire at times, and approached armored personnel carriers and bulldozers near the mosque.

Volleys of shots were fired toward them, sending the group rushing toward a nearby wall for cover, according to Associated Press Television News footage. In all, nearly 60 shots were heard on the footage, but it was not clear in every case who fired.

Two women, both age 40, were shot and killed, and at least 10 others were wounded, hospital officials said.

The army said the gunmen inside the mosque took advantage of the demonstration to escape because there were not enough infantrymen to block the women from approaching the building, and troops did not want to shoot into the crowd.

The army said troops spotted two militants hiding in the crowd of women and opened fire, hitting the two militants .

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