Thousands flee heavy fighting as troops deep in Gaza City (Lead)

January 15th, 2009 - 6:33 pm ICT by IANS  

Gaza City, Jan 15 (DPA) Israeli ground troops pushed deep into southern Gaza City Thursday, advancing close to the city centre and sparking heavy battles with local militants, upping the pressure on Hamas even as international efforts to reach a truce seemed to be gaining momentum.As the UN and Germany’s top diplomats were holding talks with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the Israeli ground troops were taking on Hamas and other militants as close as one and half kilometres from the city centre, Gaza City residents said.

Backed by heavy tank shelling, the troops concentrated in the southern Tel el-Hawa neighbourhood made their deepest push yet into the city of 400,000 and were now “very close” to Gaza City’s Islamic University and UN headquarters, they said.

Residents of Tel el-Hawa were panicking in their residential buildings, some of them high-rises, while keeping doors and windows shut, and calling on international organisations to evacuate them. Thousands were also fleeing their homes. Ambulances were unable to reach the area amid the heavy fighting. Heavy exchanges were also reported in the nearby, but more southern Zaytoun neighbourhood.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said local militants were confronting the ground troops with mortar shells and gunfire, sparking “very intense” exchanges of fire. She said the tanks were returning fire only toward the sources of the Palestinian fire.

Hamas and other militant factions in turn also stepped up their rocket attacks, firing at least 16 into southern Israel already by mid-morning. One struck in a garden of a home in the town of Sderot, located just a few kilometres to the northeast of the strip, whose family had escaped into the safe room of the house.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier were each due to hold talks with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv Thursday, meeting Israeli President Shimon Peres, caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

While Ban was in Cairo Wednesday, Steinmeier - who called for a humanitarian ceasefire to precede a “permanent” one after landing in Tel Aviv early Thursday - in turn was due to travel to the Egyptian capital in the evening.

Palestinians reported at least seven killed during the night. The Palestinian toll on day 20 of the Israeli offensive now stands at at least 1,040 dead and some 5,000 injured, according to Gaza emergency services chief Mo’aweya Hassanein.

An Israeli military spokesman in Tel Aviv said Israel killed or injured 35 militants during the night’s fighting, mainly in air attacks directed by the ground troops. Navy gunboats also supported the ground forces, he added.

He said the Israel Air Force pounded some 70 targets overnight, including a mosque in the southern Gaza border town of Rafah, which he said was storing rockets and also served as a meeting point for rocket launching squads.

The UN General Assembly meanwhile was scheduled to meet Thursday to debate the Israel-Hamas fighting in Gaza Strip, a move requested by the Non-Aligned Movement.

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