Heavy fighting on Gaza outskirts, ‘progress’ in talks (Roundup)

January 13th, 2009 - 12:23 am ICT by IANS  

Gaza City, Jan 12 (DPA) Israeli ground troops fought heavy battles with Palestinian militants on Gaza City’s outskirts Monday, as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said only Israel would decide when it would stop its offensive in Gaza, and Egypt said some “progress” was made in talks with Hamas aimed at reaching a truce.Talks between Egyptian secret service chief Omar Suleiman and a delegation from Hamas in Cairo on restoring calm to Gaza were described as “positive”, according to Egypt’s official MENA news agency.

Meanwhile in the fighting, at least 10 Palestinians - among them two women and two children - were killed as Israel used tanks and artillery shelling, as well as air support in the fighting, which concentrated on Gaza City’s southern and eastern-most neighbourhoods.

Israel also accused Hamas of violating a three-hour humanitarian truce which took effect Monday morning, allowing international organisations to pick up and distribute aid. Some 164 trucks with food, medical supplies, blankets and other items were entering though the Kerem Shalom and Karni crossings, the military said.

Israel kept up its airstrikes, but on a somewhat smaller scale than in the earlier days of the offensive, striking 12 targets overnight and another 25 during the day, the military said.

Those destroyed overnight were mostly houses of Hamas activists, which a spokesman said were storing rockets and hiding tunnels, and rocket-launching sites.

As the Israeli ground troops continued to encircle Gaza City, heavy gunbattles were also taking place east of Khan Younis, in the south and east of Jabaliya and Beit Lahiya, in the north, Palestinian witnesses told local radio stations.

The Israeli ground troops, who since Sunday for the first time included reserve soldiers, have thus far avoided pushing deeper into populated areas, where Hamas is believed to have a strategic advantage. But they are making “limited” advances, witnesses said.

The Palestinian toll on day 17 of Israel’s Gaza offensive now stood at more than 900 killed and 4,100 injured, said Gaza emergency services chief Mo’aweya Hassanein. Thirteen Israelis have been killed and dozens injured.

According to figures from the Israeli Defence Ministry, about 400 of the dead are members of Hamas’ armed wing and security forces. It said that as the offensive was in its third week, a total of 2,200 targets throughout Gaza have been hit, among them some 260 smuggling tunnels.

Palestinian militants fired over 642 rockets into Israel during that time, some 90 of them imported, Russian-type Grads.

Livni maintained the Gaza offensive had hurt Hamas’ ability to fire rockets into Israel and “changed the equation” between the radical Islamic movement ruling Gaza and Israel.

It had also restored Israel’s “deterrence” against militant factions seeking to attack it - Hamas now understands that Israel will act “wildly” to any such attacks against it, she said.

“I don’t accept that in a war against terror the UN decides when to stop,” the defiant Israeli foreign minister told Israel Radio Monday morning.

Caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he hoped to see a quick end to the offensive, but stressed it would go on until Hamas completely ceased its rocket fire and until smuggling tunnels were decimated.

Meanwhile, a boat carrying international peace activists and medical supplies for the embattled Gaza Strip left the Cypriot port of Larnaca Monday after a similar effort to deliver aid was thwarted by Israel last month.

A representative for the Greek-flagged Arion vessel, with 30 peace activists from the US “Free Gaza” group, 15 doctors and European parliamentarians, said it would attempt to break through the Israeli blockade and enter Gaza carrying relief supplies.

“We know it is difficult to break through the blockade. We must try however, because of the dramatic situation to reach Gaza. We hope to reach there Tuesday by noon,” Greek Cypriot parliamentarian Sofia Sakorafa said in a radio interview.

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