Gaza toll passes 1,000 as Israeli raids continue

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GAZA CITY: January 14, 2009. (AFP) Israel carried out fresh air raids across Gaza on Thursday and ground troops waged more street battles as its war entered entered a 20th day and the death toll passed 1,000 despite hopes of a truce.

After United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in the region seeking to end the conflict, diplomats said Hamas has accepted an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, although the Islamists merely indicated support for its broad outlines. The head of Gaza's emergency services Moawiya Hassanein told AFP 1,038 people have been killed in the Hamas-run territory while a further 4,850 people have been wounded since the December 27 launch of Operation Cast Lead. Israeli warplanes blasted Gaza's southern border with Egypt, carrying out some three dozen bombing raids and sending panicked residents fleeing, witnesses said. At least 16 people were killed in the night-time raids across the territory, including a 13-year-old boy in a Gaza City neighbourhood and two suspected militants near Jabaliya refugee camp in the north. The Israeli military said the air force struck nine rocket launch pads and three smuggling tunnels as they pushed on with their bid to prevent the Islamists from firing rockets and missiles across the border. A total of 15 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel from Gaza, the army said, a fraction of those fired at the start of the war on December 27. Some were also fired from Lebanon in the second such attack in less than a week. A senior Israeli defence official told AFP that the war, which has killed some 400 civilians and has sparked outrage across the Muslim world, could well continue until the January 20 inauguration of US president-elect Barack Obama. "Israel is still waiting for guarantees on solving the issue of weapon smuggling and things are moving in Cairo," he said on condition of anonymity. "Nevertheless, Israel is not feeling any pressure at this point to end the operation," he added. Hamas has remained defiant throughout the campaign, with its prime minister Ismail Haniya insisting earlier this week it was nearing victory over the Jewish state. But a Gaza-based leader of the Islamist group said after talks with officials in Cairo that it did not reject the "broad outlines" of an Egyptian-brokered truce plan, without accepting the plan outright. "President (Hosni) Mubarak's vision is the only one that was proposed, we don't ask for any amendment to its broad outlines," Salah al-Bardawil told journalists in Cairo. He said Hamas has "presented to the Egyptian leadership our detailed vision," despite the fact Egyptian and Spanish diplomats said Hamas had accepted the plan. The Islamists' vision is to be put to senior Israeli defence official Amos Gilad when he visits Cairo on Thursday to discuss the initiative. Diplomatic efforts for a ceasefire are to mount on Thursday, with the UN General Assembly to hold an emergency session and the Gulf Cooperation Council to also meet at an emergency summit in the Saudi capital Riyadh. Israel has made ending the offensive conditional on a complete halt to rocket fire against the south of the country and stemming arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza. But a senior US State Department said Hamas has yet to meet the terms for a ceasefire. "It's not a done deal yet. They're still working it. There are a number of Hamas conditions that are having to be dealt with," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity after the White House voiced scepticism about Hamas. In Cairo, Ban again pleaded for "an immediate and durable ceasefire," at the start of a trip that will take him to Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and an Arab League summit next Monday in Kuwait. The diplomatic fallout from Israeli's deadliest ever offensive in the impoverished strip became evident when a senior European Union official said talks on upgrading ties with the Jewish state have been put on hold. "Both sides realise it is a convenient time for a time-out," Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal, head of the European Commission delegation to Israel, said. And Bolivian President Evo Morales said his country had severed ties with Israel to protest the Gaza war, a move later matched by Venezuela, whose President Hugo Chavez had already expelled Israel's ambassador on January 6. In a recording posted on the Internet entitled "A Call for Jihad to Stop Aggression Against Gaza," Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden called for a holy war to restore "Jerusalem and Palestine." The Al-Qaeda leader also criticised the Arab handling of the Gaza conflict. Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed in combat or by rocket attacks since December 27. The offensive has sparked widespread concern about a humanitarian crisis breaking out in one of the world's most densely populated places where the vast majority of the 1.5 million population depends on foreign aid. The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, speaking after a visit to Gaza's main hospital, described the situation as "shocking".

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