The search for three teenagers who disappeared last week plunged Israeli-Palestinian relations into a deepening crisis yesterday after Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Islamist militant group Hamas of kidnap and laid blame on Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader.

"These teenagers were kidnapped and the kidnapping was carried out by Hamas members. We know that for a fact," Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister, told a Cabinet meeting. He spoke as about 2500 Israeli troops scoured an area around Hebron in the West Bank, hunting for Gilad Shaer, Naftali Frenkel, both 16, and Eyal Ifrach, 19.

The military has arrested more than 150 Palestinians, including 10 Hamas legislators.

The three, one of whom holds US citizenship, disappeared after apparently trying to hitchhike to central Israel from Gush Etzion settlement, where they are seminary students.


Fears for their fate have gripped the country. The army search operation has been code-named "operation bring back our boys" in an apparent reference to the campaign to free more than 200 schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria.

Israeli security chiefs say they found a burned-out car near where the youngsters are thought to have been picked up.

Netanyahu provided no evidence for his assertion but linked the event to a recent unity deal between the group and Abbas' Palestinian Authority, which prompted Israel to abandon peace talks in April. "Instead of abiding by his international obligation to disarm Hamas, President Abbas has chosen to make Hamas his partner," he said.

A Hamas spokesman dismissed the accusations as "stupid" without explicitly denying its involvement.

- additional reporting AP