Teenagers' 'killers' die in swoop
Two Palestinians suspected over the abduction and murders of three Israeli teenagers have been killed by Israeli special forces who stormed a West Bank hideout.
The deaths of the two suspects, identified by the Israeli military as well-known Hamas militants, ended one of the largest manhunts conducted by the Israeli security forces.
Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship, were abducted on June 12 while hitch-hiking home in the West Bank and killed soon afterwards.
The incident prompted a large Israeli crackdown on Hamas group and set off a chain of events which led to a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
In an operation codenamed Brother's Keeper, Israel dispatched thousands of troops across the West Bank in search of the youths, closed roads in the Hebron area and arrested hundreds of Hamas operatives throughout the territory.
The search ended on July 1 when the bodies were found under a pile of rocks in a field north of Hebron. Officials later said it was believed the three had been killed shortly after their abduction.
Israeli forces had been pursuing the suspects, Amer Abu Aisheh and Marwan Qawasmeh, since the abductions, said Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner.
He told reporters there had been a recent breakthrough in the search that led the Yamam, a special police counter-terrorism unit, to the hideout in an area of Hebron about a week ago.
Early today, Israeli special forces entered the ground floor of the two-storey building and killed two Hamas operatives after coming under fire, he said.
The military believes both men were killed, though troops confirmed the killing of only one suspect. Lt Col Lerner said the second suspect fell backwards in a hail of fire and is presumed dead, though the body has not yet been recovered.
He noted that the two men had been identified as the suspects early in the search, their Hamas connections were well-known, and Hamas has repeatedly tried to abduct Israeli civilians and soldiers. Another three members of one the Qawasmeh family were arrested, he said.
"We were determined in bringing the ruthless murderers of Gilad, Eyal and Naftali to justice," Lt Col Lerner said. "Today's successful mission brings the long-term search to an end, and the perpetrators of the crime no longer pose a threat to Israeli civilians," he said.
In Qatar, Hussam Badran, a spokesman for top Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, praised the two militants on his Twitter account.
"The martyrdom of Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisheh came after a long life full of jihad sacrifice and giving. This is the path of resistance, which we all are moving in," he said.
Hamas denied involvement for weeks after the teenagers were abducted. However, during the Israel-Hamas war, an exiled Hamas leader responsible for West Bank operations acknowledged his group had been responsible for abducting and killing them.
In the days leading up to the start of the Gaza war in early July, a Palestinian youth was also abducted and killed in east Jerusalem by Israeli extremists in an apparent revenge attack over the youths' murders.