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Middle East: Israel Expands Gaza Offensive, UN's Annan Urges Halt

Israel has escalated its military offensive in Gaza with an air strike on a militant stronghold that killed a senior Hamas leader. Some 60 Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed in the five days of violence, which Israel says will last "as long as necessary" to halt rocket attacks against the Jewish state. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is urging Israel to halt its incursion into Gaza, which he said has led to the deaths of scores of civilians, including children.

Prague, 4 October 2004 -- The Israeli military said an air strike today killed four more Palestinian militants in the northern Gaza camp. A top official of the militant group Hamas was among the dead.

The Israeli offensive began on 30 September and was launched after two Israeli children were killed in a Palestinian rocket attack on Sderot, which borders Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has vowed to continue the offensive until Palestinian militants stop firing rockets at Israelis.

Analysts say the offensive is also a political calculation by Sharon. He is under fire from right-wing critics who say his plan to pull Israel out of Gaza has prompted militants to step up attacks so that they appear to be the ones driving Israel out.

Israeli Army Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon told reporters yesterday that the raids are successfully targeting militants who have hit Israel with rockets.
The offensive is one of the bloodiest since the Palestinian uprising began more than four years ago. More than 150 Palestinians have reportedly been wounded.

"The troops on the ground are supported by attack helicopters, and as far as we know, we have succeeded at killing more than 60 terrorists," Yaalon said.

That makes the offensive one of the bloodiest since the Palestinian uprising began more than four years ago. More than 150 Palestinians have reportedly been wounded.

Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, told reporters that militants might be ready to stop firing rockets at Israel: "The problem is not our people. The problem is not the resistance and the means of the resistance. If the occupation leaves, if the aggression stops, if these raids stop, then the Palestinian people and the factions -- who are always open-minded -- [will] study what is in the interest and safety of our people, their freedom and stability."

But Mushir al-Masri, a spokesman for Hamas, told a rally yesterday that rocket attacks will continue as long as Israel stays in Gaza.

At the United Nations yesterday, Secretary-General Annan urged Israel to halt its raids in Gaza. He said they have led to the deaths of scores of Palestinians, including civilians and children. Annan also called on Palestinian leaders to help stop rocket fire.

In Cairo, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa addressed reporters after holding an emergency session with Arab leaders yesterday.

"The council has decided to ask the Arab group [of nations at the UN] in New York to immediately convene and put the matter before the General Assembly and Security Council and all the Security Council," Musa said.

Nearly 200 Israeli tanks and armored vehicles have seized nine square kilometers of the northern strip. Israel says this "buffer zone" will protect Israeli towns from rocket fire and ensure that militant groups are crushed.

(compiled from news agency reports)