On Gaza beach, a blast, then a second, and 4 children dead

GAZA CITY (AFP) - The sound of a blast cut through the air on Gaza's beach, drawing people out of seafront buildings to see a crowd of terrified children sprinting along the sand. They screamed as they ran, smoke rising behind them from an Israeli strike.

Panicked onlookers shouted at them to run away from the scene, and towards the safety of a hotel.

And then another blast hit the site. There was an orange glow and more smoke. A hut used by Palestinian fishermen was set ablaze by the strike.

The children continued to run, but some of them were left behind. Four of them were killed. Afterwards, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra gave names of the four, all cousins: Ahed Atef Bakr, aged 10, Zakaria Ahed Bakr, also 10. Mohamed Ramez Bakr, nine, and Ismail Mohamed Bakr, 11.

The other children, some crying, and others bleeding, ran into a hotel, where staff and journalists scrambled to help them. Thirteen-year-old Hamed Bakr had shrapnel in his chest and was crying: "It hurts, my chest hurts."

Those present worked to clean and dress his wounds and those of two other injured children while ambulances were called. It was unclear if Wednesday's strikes were the result of naval shelling, which frequently hits part of the Gaza coastline, or from Israeli warplanes.

Several hours after the strikes, the Israeli military in a statement described the deaths as "tragic" and said it was investigating the incident.

"Based on preliminary results the target of this strike was Hamas terrorist operatives," the statement said. "The reported civilian casualties from this strike are a tragic outcome."

At least 220 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza in the nine days since the start of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas running the coastal strip. Militants in Gaza have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, killing one.

The four bodies of the children were later taken to Abu Hasira mosque, near where the boys had died.

The boys were laid out, wrapped in the yellow flags of the Fatah party - the Palestinian rival to the Hamas movement - in front of mourners.

"We come from God and to God we shall return," the imam overseeing the funeral prayers said.

Relative Khamis Bakr, 47, shook with anger as he spoke. "They were playing on the beach. They'd gone there to get away from Beach Camp because there was a lot of shelling there," he said. "They walked right into their deaths."

Zakaria's grandfather pushed through the mourners to the four small bodies and kneeled down, apparently in shock.

"The children were just playing, they had told one of their mothers that they were going to the beach," he said. "We didn't know anything had happened, and then we heard on the radio that there had been a strike, and people from the Bakr family had been killed. "And then I knew that the children were gone."