Fighting continues in Gaza, rockets strike from Lebanon

Israeli aircraft continue to pound targets in the Gaza Strip while three rockets are launched from Lebanon into northern Israel.
Smoke rises during Israel's offensive in the northern Gaza Strip on Jan 14 2009.
Smoke rises during Israel's offensive in the northern Gaza Strip on Jan 14 2009.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip // Israeli aircraft pounded a cemetery, rocket-launching pads, weapons arsenals and dozens of arms smuggling tunnels in the Gaza Strip, witnesses and the military said today, while militants in Lebanon raised the spectre of a new front by sending three rockets crashing into northern Israel. Israeli police said the rockets from Lebanon landed in open areas near the town of Kiryat Shemona, causing no injuries or damage. Residents of northern Israel were instructed to head to bomb shelters following the second attack from Lebanon in less than a week.

Lebanese officials said the Israeli army fired shells on south Lebanon after the rockets were fired on Israel. There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Lebanon's Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed guerrilla group that fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006, denied involvement in last week's attack and speculation focused on small Palestinian groups in Lebanon. The rockets flying across its northern border have fuelled Israel's fears that militants in Lebanon could try to open a second front in solidarity with Gaza's Islamic militant Hamas rulers.

Israel launched an air and ground onslaught against Hamas 19 days ago. Today, the UN chief Ban Ki-moon headed to the region to lend his heft to diplomatic efforts to wrest an end to the violence, which has killed more than 940 Palestinians, half of them civilians, according to Palestinian hospital officials. Thirteen Israelis have also been killed, four of them by rocket fire from Gaza. Mr Ban's first stop on his week-long tour was to be Egypt, which is playing a crucial role in ceasefire efforts.

Israeli military officials have said the talks in Cairo, which they term "decisive," will determine whether Israel moves closer to a truce or widens its offensive to send thousands of reservists into crowded, urban areas where casualties on both sides would likely mount. Israel had planned to send its lead negotiator, Amos Gilad, to Cairo today, but his trip was put off because conditions weren't ripe, defence officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the date of his departure has not been set.

Mr Ban is to meet today with the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who launched an initiative with France a week ago aimed at achieving a temporary halt to the fighting to be followed by a permanent ceasefire and arrangements on border security. He will head from there to Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait. His itinerary does not include a stop in Gaza.

Israel pressed ahead with its military offensive overnight even as diplomatic efforts advanced. Military planes and helicopter gunships pounded 60 targets overnight, including a police court in Gaza City, rocket-launching sites, gunmen, weapons-production and storage facilities and about 35 weapons smuggling tunnels, the military said. Witnesses also reported an air strike on the house of a militant rocket squad leader.

Palestinians said aircraft also struck the Sheikh Radwan cemetery in Gaza City, destroying tombs and unearthing dozens of bodies. Gaza City residents, too terrified to venture out to the only graveyard in the area with space to dig new graves, have reopened the Sheikh Radwan burial ground to bury their dead. The military had no immediate comment. Early today, Israeli tanks resumed fire at civilian areas, using shells that ignited small fires before dissolving into clouds of white smoke that hung above the city centre, witnesses said. The Israeli military has not confirmed reports that it has improperly used white phosphorous shells, saying only that it uses munitions is in accordance with international law.

Four Palestinians, including at least two militants, were killed and 32 people were wounded in overnight fighting, Gaza, hospital officials said. Fireballs and smoke plumes from Israeli bombing have become a common sight in the territory of 1.4 million people, who are trapped because Israel and Egypt have blockaded border crossings ever since Hamas came to power in June 2007. * AP

Published: January 14, 2009 04:00 AM

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