Saturday, December 27, 2008

Scores die in Israeli air strikes

The following is from the BBC

Scores die in Israeli air strikes

Israeli F-16 bombers have launched a series of air strikes against key targets in the Gaza Strip, killing at least 155 people, medical chiefs say.

Gaza officials and the Hamas militant group said about 200 others were hurt as missiles hit security compounds and militant bases across the territory.

The strikes, the most intense Israeli attacks on Gaza in years, come days after a truce with Hamas expired.

Israel said it was responding to an escalation in rocket attacks from Gaza.

Palestinian militants frequently fire rockets against Israeli towns from inside the Gaza Strip; large numbers of rocket and mortar shells had been fired at Israel in recent days.

In a statement, Israel's military said it targeted "Hamas terror operatives" as well as training camps and weaponry storage warehouses.

In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas - whose Fatah faction was ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007 - condemned the attacks and called for restraint.

But Hamas quickly vowed to carry out revenge attacks on Israel in response to the air strikes, firing Qassam rockets into Israeli territory as an immediate reply.

At least one Israeli was killed by a rocket strike in the town of Netivot, doctors said.

"Hamas will continue the resistance until the last drop of blood," spokesman Fawzi Barhoum was reported as saying.

Israel also stood firm, saying operations "will continue, will be expanded, and will deepen if necessary".

International reaction was swift and expressed concern, with many world leaders calling for calm and an immediate ceasefire.

Rising toll

A White House spokesman said the United States "urges Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza".

"Hamas' continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop," the spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, added.

The UK Foreign Office said: "We urge maximum restraint to avoid further civilian casualties."

The French presidency of the EU meanwhile called for an immediate halt to the shooting by both sides.

Reports of the casualties in Gaza mounted swiftly after news broke of the Israeli operation, in which at least 30 missiles were fired by F-16 fighter bombers.

Images from the scenes of strikes showed dead and injured Palestinians, burning and destroyed buildings, and scenes of panic and chaos on Gaza's crowded streets.

Residents spoke of children heading to and from school at the time of the attacks, and there were fears of civilian casualties, although no detailed information was available from hospitals.

Israel hit targets across Gaza, striking in the territory's main population centres, including Gaza City in the north and the southern towns of Khan Younis and Rafah.

Egypt opened its border crossing to the Gaza Strip at Rafah to absorb and treat some of those injured in the south of the territory.

Most of the dead and injured were said to be in Gaza City, where Hamas's main security compound was destroyed. The head of Gaza's police forces, Tawfik Jaber, was reportedly among those killed.

Reuters news agency said at least 20 people were thought to have died in Khan Younis.

Hamas said all of its security compounds in Gaza were destroyed by the Israeli air strikes, which Israel said hit some 40 targets across the territory.

The air strikes are the most intense Israel has launched against Gaza for some time, and come amid rumours that a ground operation is imminent.

Israeli security officials have been briefing about the possibility of a new offensive into Gaza for some days now, says the BBC's Paul Wood, in Jerusalem.

But most reports centred on the possibility of a ground offensive, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was not expected to authorise any operation until Sunday at the earliest.

Although a six-month truce between Hamas and Israel was agreed earlier this year, it was regularly under strain and was allowed to lapse when it expired this month.

Hamas blamed Israel for the end of the ceasefire, saying it had not respected its terms, including the lifting of the blockade under which little more than humanitarian aid has been allowed into Gaza.

Israel said it initially began a staged easing of the blockade, but this was halted when Hamas failed to fulfil what Israel says were agreed conditions, including ending all rocket fire and halting weapons smuggling.

Israel says the blockade - in place since Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007 - is needed to isolate Hamas and stop it and other militants from firing rockets across the border at Israeli towns.

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