Israeli authorities said Tuesday that two Palestinians suspected of taking part in the abduction and murder of three Israeli teens this past June died in a shootout in the West Bank.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, told The Associated Press that soldiers had pursued the suspects, Amer Abu Aisheh and Marwan Qawasmeh, since the kidnappings.
The June 12 abductions had prompted a large Israeli crackdown on the Islamic militant Hamas group and set off a chain of events that led to a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Lerner told reporters that there was 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 on Tuesday, Israeli troops entered the ground floor of a two-story building and killed the two men after coming under fire, Lerner said.
The military believes both men were killed, though troops confirmed the killing of only one suspect. Lerner said the second suspect fell backward in a hail of fire and is presumed dead, though the body has not yet been recovered.
Lerner noted 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.
The three Israeli teens -- Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship -- were abducted from a West Bank hitchhiking post on June 12, setting off a manhunt in which Israel dispatched forces across the West Bank and arrested hundreds of Hamas activists.
The bodies were found in a West Bank field July 1. Officials later said it was presumed the three had been killed shortly after the abduction.
"We were determined in bringing the ruthless murderers of Gilad, Eyal and Naftali to justice," 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.
For weeks, Hamas denied involvement in the teens’ deaths. However, during the Israel-Hamas war, an exiled Hamas leader responsible for West Bank operations acknowledged his group had been responsible for the abductions.
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 teens' slaying.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.