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Three Palestinians Killed in Ongoing Israeli Operation in Gaza

Israeli troops shot and killed three Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday as the army pushed ahead with a four-month-old offensive in the coastal area, Palestinian security officials said.

The three died after Israeli troops pushed into an area along the Gaza-Israel frontier, touching off a gunbattle with armed men in the village of Khouza, the security officials said. All three were part of the military wing of the ruling Hamas group, Hamas spokesman Abu Obeidah said.

Israel launched its offensive in late June after Hamas militants carried out a cross-border raid on a military outpost, killing two soldiers and capturing a third, who remains in captivity.

Israel said Monday it would expand its offensive, which has primarily targeted militant strongholds, to include the Gaza-Egypt border area, which it has largely avoided since pulling out of Gaza last September.

Recently, Israel has said that arms smuggling across the porous frontier has increased, and the lack of Palestinian or Egyptian moves to halt the activity may force the army to operate in their stead.

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"There is no doubt that we have to take steps to reduce the ability of the Palestinians to fire rockets at Israel and smuggle in weapons," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet on Monday.

Later Monday, Palestinian gunmen held a Spanish aid worker for several hours in central Gaza, the latest in a wave of kidnappings of foreigners.

Roberto Vila, a 34-year-old aid worker with the Cooperation Assembly for Peace, a Spanish charity group, was snatched Monday afternoon and released unharmed before midnight. Officials said the kidnappers dropped him off at security headquarters. Vila told reporters he was "fine, but tired."

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas denounced the kidnapping. "Such actions harm the image of the Palestinian people," he said.

Palestinian gunmen have kidnapped a series of foreign journalists and aid workers in Gaza over the past two years — including a Spanish Associated Press photographer in Gaza City last week — usually pressing the government for money or job guarantees. In most cases, the hostages were quickly released, and none has been seriously harmed.

The kidnappings reflect growing chaos in the seaside territory, where rival Fatah and Hamas forces have been clashing as political leaders haggle over forming a joint government that could lift punishing Western sanctions that have nearly bankrupted the government and led to widespread hardships.