HEBRON West Bank (Reuters) - Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron on Tuesday and the military said they were members of Hamas responsible for the killing of three Israeli youths in June, an attack that led to the Gaza war.
Marwan Kawasme and Amar Abu Aysha, both in their 30s, were shot dead during a gun battle after Israeli troops surrounded a house in the city before dawn, the army and residents said. Israel had been hunting the men for three months.
Kawasme and Abu Aysha were suspected of carrying out the kidnapping and killing of the three teenage seminary students, who were abducted while hitchhiking at night near a Jewish settlement in the West Bank on June 12.
The military said army and police forces were trying to arrest the two suspects when a firefight erupted.
"We opened fire, they returned fire and they were killed in the exchange," Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said.
The governor of Hebron, Kamel Hmeid, confirmed on Palestinian radio that the two were dead.
"It's clear now the two martyrs, al-Kawasme and Abu Aysha, were assassinated this morning during a military operation in the Hebron University area. We condemn this crime, this assassination, as deliberate and premeditated murder," he said.
Kawasme and Abu Aysha were affiliated with Hamas, which initially denied any link to the June attack.
Last month, however, the group acknowledged responsibility, although its leadership said it had no advance knowledge that the men were planning to abduct the students.
"Hamas praises the role martyrs Abu Aysha and Kawasme played in chasing down Israeli settlers and we stress that their assassination will not weaken the resistance," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the operation. "We will continue to strike terrorism everywhere," he said at the start of a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. "This morning the long arm of Israeli justice caught them."
Israeli forces have conducted widespread sweeps across the West Bank in the past three months, rounding up hundreds of suspected Hamas members in house-to-house raids in the hunt for the suspects behind the attack.
The abduction and killing of Eyal Yifrach, 19, and Gilad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel, both 16, caused alarm throughout Israel and set off a cycle of violence, including the killing of Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khudair, 16, by three Israelis who have been arrested and charged.
Khudair's killing led to clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli police in East Jerusalem, while the round-up of Hamas suspects across the West Bank provoked rocket fire at Israel from militants in Gaza, leading to the war.
Gaza medical officials say 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed in the 50-day conflict, while 67 Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel were also killed.
Efforts to forge a lasting peace agreement following the war are set to resume in Cairo on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Noah Browning in Ramallah and Nidl al-Mughrabi in Gaza Writing by Maayan Lubell Editing by Jeremy Gaunt