Local Time

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Israeli forces push into Gaza Strip

Wed Jun 28, 2006 09:16 AM ET
By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - Israel launched on Wednesday its first ground offensive in the Gaza Strip since leaving the territory last year, stepping up pressure on Palestinian militants to release an abducted soldier.

Tanks and infantry, backed by assault helicopters and artillery, set up a strategic observation post at a disused airport outside the southern town of Rafah as masked gunmen waited behind barricades and in alleyways for battle to begin.

Threatening "extreme steps" if Corporal Gilad Shalit was not freed, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the operation would continue "over the coming days."

Launching the offensive three days after Shalit was captured in Israel by gunmen in a cross-border raid, Israeli aircraft struck at three bridges in what the army said was an attempt to stop militants moving the captive.

A helicopter attack on Gaza's only power plant sent flames shooting into the sky and cut off electricity to much of the coastal territory, where 1.4 million Palestinians live. Engineers said repairs could take six months.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the bombardment of civilian infrastructure "collective punishment and a crime against humanity."

Olmert said Israel had "no intention of recapturing" the Gaza Strip.

"We have a central goal and that is to bring Gilad home," he said in a speech in Jerusalem.

Mushir al-Masri, a legislator from the governing Hamas movement, said Olmert's "adventurism" was "putting the missing soldier at risk."

Overflying Gaza, Israeli warplanes caused sonic booms that rattled Palestinian nerves and carried out what a military spokeswoman said were several missile strikes in open areas.

Security sources said an explosion that killed two Palestinians at a home in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday was accidental and not related to the Israeli offensive.

MISSING SETTLER

In another challenge to Israel, a militant group threatened to kill a Jewish settler it said it seized in the West Bank if the Gaza raid continued. Israeli authorities said the settler has been missing since Sunday.

Abu Abir, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, showed a photocopy of the missing settler's ID card at a Gaza news conference. Abu Abir and other militants left in a hurry at the sound of Israeli aircraft breaking the sound barrier.

In a statement in Brussels, the European Union's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, called on those holding the soldier to free him.

She also urged Israel to "act with prudence" to allow diplomatic efforts to secure his release to succeed.

The hostage crisis was a major test for Olmert, a career politician with little security experience.

He was elected in March on a platform of carrying out a similar withdrawal from parts of the occupied West Bank, another territory Palestinians would like as part of a state.

With tension growing on Tuesday, Hamas reached a political deal with Abbas, a moderate, but rejected any suggestion the plan meant it recognized Israel.

Israel dismissed the manifesto, penned by Palestinians in its jails, as "double-speak" aimed at lifting a U.S.-led aid embargo on the Palestinian Authority.

Two Israeli soldiers and two attackers were killed in Sunday's raid by gunmen from three factions, including Hamas's armed wing, who tunneled under Israel's Gaza border fence.

The groups said the assault was in response to the killing of 14 Palestinian civilians in Israeli air strikes in Gaza against militants behind cross-border rocket attacks.

http://go.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml;jsessionid=DJVH5YQCWM34ECRBAEOCFEY?type=topNews&storyID=12674971

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