Palestinian militants blew up an Israeli army base at the Gaza-Egypt crossing yesterday by sneaking more than a ton of explosives through a tunnel, killing at least five Israeli...

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian militants blew up an Israeli army base at the Gaza-Egypt crossing yesterday by sneaking more than a ton of explosives through a tunnel, killing at least five Israeli soldiers and wounding at least five in the largest Palestinian attack in the month since Yasser Arafat’s death.

Hitting back, Israeli helicopters fired at least five missiles at targets in Gaza City today, witnesses said. There were no reports of casualties. One missile started a fire at an abandoned metal workshop, while the other target was an empty house near the Islamic University, they said.

Also yesterday, imprisoned Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti declared in a letter that he would throw his support to mainstream candidate Mahmoud Abbas in a Jan. 9 election to replace Arafat, dropping out of the race. The move rids Abbas of his strongest rival and wards off what could have been a split in the leading Fatah faction of the PLO.

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For his part, Abbas — who has stepped in as interim Palestinian leader until the elections — apologized to Kuwaitis for Palestinian support of Saddam Hussein during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, his latest gesture to mend fences with Arab nations offended by Arafat.

“Yes, we apologize for what we have done,” he said after arriving in Kuwait, responding to reporters’ questions about many Kuwaitis’ long-standing demands for an apology.

Arafat supported Iraq in its 1990 invasion of its tiny, oil-rich neighbor and opposed the subsequent U.S.-led Gulf War that liberated it. He never visited Kuwait afterward.

The powerful blast on the Gaza-Egyptian border, followed by a mortar barrage and gunfire, demolished the post and wrecked several structures in an adjacent base, army officials said.

“It was a very large and very well-coordinated attack,” said Capt. Jacob Dallal, an army spokesman.

Early today, the army said that five soldiers were killed in the explosion and five were injured, including two seriously. The statement said two Palestinians charged the base and opened fire after the blast, and soldiers shot them dead.

Israel said the attack jeopardizes peace moves, and it demanded Palestinian action to stop the militants.

There had been a relative lull in violence since Arafat died Nov. 11, as all parties to the Middle East conflict reassessed their positions and the Palestinians prepared to elect a new leader next month.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in recent weeks that he was prepared to coordinate a planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip with a new Palestinian leadership, and Israeli relations with Egypt improved as the two countries discussed working together to ensure quiet after the pullout. Progress was reported in contacts between Palestinian officials and militant factions about a possible cease-fire.

But yesterday’s attack served notice that militants were determined to keep up their assaults and to challenge the next Palestinian leader chosen in the elections Jan. 9.

Abbas seemed assured of victory yesterday after Barghouti’s withdrawal. Polls had shown a tight contest between Abbas, a relative moderate who has criticized the armed uprising, and Barghouti, a popular leader of the revolt who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail.

Hamas and the Fatah Hawks, a militant offshoot of Fatah, claimed joint responsibility for yesterday’s bombing. Spokesmen for the two groups said militants had tunneled 800 yards under the army post at the Rafah border crossing and detonated more than 1.5 tons of explosives.

Hamas’ representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, rejected calls for a halt to attacks on Israel and threatened new, unspecified types of retaliation against the Israeli occupation. “The talk about a truce or a cease-fire is pure speculation and illusion. The [Israeli] enemy is still occupying our land. … The next few days will witness new lessons against the Zionist occupation,” Hamdan told about 2,000 Hamas supporters in Lebanon’s Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp on the outskirts of the southern port city of Sidon.

Raanan Gissin, a top aide to Sharon, said the attack could make it difficult to revive peace efforts, and he demanded action by the Palestinian Authority: “Unless there is decisive and sustained effort to dismantle the terrorist organizations, it will be impossible to move toward normalization and toward political negotiations,” Gissin said.

Hours before the attack, the Israeli Cabinet approved the release of 100 to 200 Palestinian prisoners as a gesture to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after he ordered the release last week of an Israeli Arab who served eight years in prison after being convicted of espionage.

Gissin said none of the prisoners to be freed were linked to fatal Palestinian attacks.

An official in Sharon’s office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Gaza attack would not affect the prisoner release.

Violence in the Gaza Strip has flared in recent days. Tuesday, a soldier was killed when a bomb went off in a chicken coop that troops were searching on the outskirts of Gaza City. Hamas said a double agent had lured soldiers to the site. Thursday, Israeli forces wounded a militant leader in a missile strike, and Friday, an 8-year-old Palestinian girl was killed by Israeli fire during an exchange between troops and militants who had fired mortars at Jewish settlements, wounding four people.

After yesterday’s blast, the army shut the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. In July, thousands of Palestinians returning from summer visits abroad were stranded at the crossing when Israel closed it for more than two weeks after being warned of a planned bombing like the one carried out yesterday.