JERUSALEM, June 14 (Xinhua) -- Israel's defense minister said Saturday that three Jewish teenagers feared to have been kidnapped by Palestinian militants in the West Bank on Thursday night were presumed to be alive.
"At the moment we are working under the assumption that they are alive," Moshe Ya'alon told the media in his first public statement on the crisis. He said security forces will not cease their efforts to rescue the youths.
On Saturday afternoon the three teenagers were identified as Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaar, both aged 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19, after the names were cleared for publication. The trio, who resided in settlements and studied at a religious high school for men, was last seen getting on a vehicle at a remote hitchhiking spot in Gush Etzion, a settlement bloc south of Jerusalem.
One of the three is reported to be an American citizen, and the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv was notified of his disappearance.
While intelligence agencies were working to obtain leads that could shed light on the teens' whereabouts and the identity of their presumed captors, the military reinforced already massive recovery operations in the southern West Bank with some 2,000 troops.
An elite brigade of paratroopers and an infantry battalion were deployed to the area on Saturday to aid the searches, and additional special forces were on their way, a senior military official said in a conference call with reporters on Saturday.
"We need more boots on the ground to deal with this development and respond to leads coming in. We need to use all the tools at our disposal to bring this to a quick end," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the operation.
He confirmed that the military's working assumption is that the youths have been abducted by militants but that it could not confirm if they are alive or dead.
He further said that there is ongoing coordination with the Palestinian Authority's security apparatus.
"They understand that this is not just another attack in the West Bank. That has profound meaning for us."
Noting that intelligence units have made headway over the past 72 hours, the senior official cautioned that "it is possible we're facing a long and complicated affair that won't end within a few hours, despite all of the efforts being made."
The military was readying for the possibility of an escalation in violence in the West Bank and the troops deployed to the area on Saturday were camped at a training base in the southern Hebron Hills from where they could be scrambled on short notice to deal with riots and impose a curfew or a closure on Palestinian- controlled areas.
The senior military official confirmed that Palestinians have been arrested in the Hebron area overnight Friday as part of the investigation. The arrests aimed "to get closer to the inner circle" linked to the fate of the missing teens, he said but would not elaborate.
Palestinian media reported that 12 people affiliated with Hamas, among them two women, were apprehended in overnight raids in the vicinity of Hebron and other locales in the West Bank. Two detainees, named as Iyad Abdul Nabi Shabana and Dirara Abu Munshar, were previously incarcerated in Israel, the semi-official Ma'an news agency said.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army's top brass, including military chief of staff Benny Gantz and the head of military intelligence Aviv Kochavi convened throughout the day for special situation assessments and were updating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya'alon.
Ya'alon noted on Saturday that plots to abduct Israelis in the West Bank are common, citing figures according to which 30 attempts were thwarted in 2013. Fourteen attempts were foiled since the beginning of this year.