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Israeli Soldier Killed, Gaza Truce Breached


GAZA (Reuters) -- An Israeli soldier has been reported killed close to the border with the Gaza Strip in what Palestinians said appeared to have been an attack by militants in breach of cease-fire declarations made over a week ago.

In the same area, a Palestinian was later killed by Israeli fire, local medics said. They said the man was a farmer.

The Israeli military, which maintains censorship on its casualties until next of kin are informed, said a bomb went off close to forces on the Israeli side of the border fence near the Kissufim crossing in the central Gaza Strip.

It declined to comment on casualties but Al-Arabiyah television said one soldier was killed and three were wounded.

It would be the first Israeli death since Israel ended its 22-day offensive in the coastal enclave on January 18. It came on the eve of a first visit to the region by U.S. President Barack Obama's new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell. Obama has said Mitchell will pursue peace "vigorously and consistently."

Palestinians living near the Kissufim crossing told Reuters they had seen a small group of gunmen, numbering two or three, moving toward the border fence early in the morning mist. They later heard explosions and gunfire shortly after 8 a.m.

They did not see gunmen return.

A Palestinian official in Gaza said Israeli officials told him that shipments of supplies through crossing points from Israel would be closed for the day.

Return Fire

Neither the ruling Hamas Islamist movement nor any of its allied militant groups made a claim of responsibility. Among the most prominent other groups are Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, both of which had agreed to a cease-fire.

Residents later saw Israeli helicopter gunships in the air and Israeli infantry moving inside the Gaza Strip. About a kilometer to the south of Kissufim, Israeli fire killed the 27-year-old man, Palestinian medics said.

Ten Israeli soldiers were killed during the offensive that began exactly a month ago on December 27. Some 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the conflict. Three Israeli civilians also died.

Hamas and Israel declared separate cease-fires and both sides have been negotiating through Egyptian mediators on installing a longer-term truce. Hamas is demanding an easing of Israel's blockade on the territory, where 1.5 million people live. Israel wants guarantees Hamas cannot renew rocket fire on its towns.

At a meeting with Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama said on January 26: "The cause of peace in the Middle East is important to the United States and our national interests. It's important to me personally."
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