JERUSALEM – A roadside bomb in the Gaza Strip turned a passing Israeli army tank into a fireball Saturday, wiping out its four-man crew in an attack claimed by the militant Palestinian Islamic group Hamas.
The blast from the 220 pound device detonated the U.S.-made Patton tank's fuel and ammunition, setting the vehicle ablaze, the military said.
"The effect of the explosion was deadly," regional army commander Major-Gen. Doron Almog told reporters. "Ammunition exploded, a huge fire broke out."
In a statement faxed to news agencies Hamas said the bombing was revenge for the deaths of two of its activists who were killed in the same vicinity in a clash with Israeli troops earlier this week.
The attack, near the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahia, occurred Saturday morning but the Israeli military censor delayed publication for nearly 10 hours until relatives were informed.
Palestinians in the Gaza Strip said they saw black smoke rising from the tank. Soldiers with hoses tried to douse the flames, as Israeli helicopters hovered above, witnesses said.
Almog said rescue efforts were hampered by the fire that engulfed the tank and the muddy terrain.
It was the fourth fatal attack on an Israeli tank in the past year, and brought to 11 the number of soldiers killed in such incidents. Saturday's blast was the first in which an entire crew was lost, Almog said.
Shortly after the incident, Israeli army bulldozers moved into the area and demolished three Palestinian homes after evicting their occupants, witnesses said. The army said the buildings were used by the attackers for cover while they planted and set off the bomb.
The military said it was extending a closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip until further notice, citing intelligence warnings that Palestinians were preparing major terror attacks.
The closure, banning all Palestinians from entering Israel and maintaining tight travel restrictions in the West Bank, was imposed Tuesday and was to have lasted only for the duration of the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice holiday, which ended Friday.
Despite the latest bloodshed, Palestinian officials said Saturday that Palestinian Interior Minister Hanni el Hassan and Finance Minister Salam Fayad were expected to meet soon with Dov Weisglass, the head of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office, for renewed talks aimed at reaching a cease-fire between the two sides.
Israeli officials could not immediately be reached for comment, but Israeli radio said the meeting would take place during the coming week.
Palestinians said other Palestinian ministers would fly to London on Monday for talks with diplomats on reform of the Palestinian administration.
Under heavy pressure from the European Union, and the other members of the so-called quartet of peacekeeping nations -- the United States, Russia and the United Nations -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat announced Friday that he would appoint a prime minister, a step the quartet and Israel consider vital to improving the prospects for peace.
Arafat did not, however, say how much power he plans to share, who the prime minister will be or when the appointment will take place.