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Gaza turns strip of death

Spurning appeals to halt the 10-day-old assault, Israeli troops battled Hamas fighters in major cities of overcrowded Gaza on Tuesday even as tank fire killed up to 40 Palestinians at a United Nations school in the Gaza Strip, medical sources at hospitals said.

Two tank shells exploded outside the school, spraying shrapnel on people inside and outside the building, where hundreds of Palestinians had sought refuge from fighting between Israeli soldiers and Hamas militants. The latest carnage is likely to boost international calls for a halt to Israel's Gaza offensive.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said she was looking into information on the incident at al-Fakhora school in Jabalya refugee camp. People cut down by shrapnel lay in pools of blood on the street.

In a separate attack earlier in the day, three Palestinians were killed in an airstrike on another school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The deaths raised to 75 the number of Palestinian civilians killed on Tuesday alone, according to medical officials.

They said four militants also were killed in fighting during the day and put the total Palestinian death toll since Israel began the offensive on December 19 at 629. More than 2,700 Palestinians have been wounded since Israel began the campaign with the declared aim of ending Hamas rocket attacks on its southern towns. Nine Israelis, including three civilians hit by rocket fire, have been killed in the conflict.

At least five rockets fired from the Gaza Strip landed in Israel on Tuesday, including one that hit the town of Gadera, 28km from Tel Aviv.

Tuesday saw pitched street battles between troops and Hamas fighters in major cities of overcrowded Gaza as Israel spurned appeals to halt the war.

Israeli tanks firing cannons and backed by helicopter gunships rolled into the southern city of Khan Yunis in the pre-dawn hours, to be met by return fire from Hamas and other militant groups, witnesses said.

Hamas movement's armed wing al-Qassam Brigades vowed to kidnap more Israeli soldiers during the ongoing military operation carried out against Gaza. Abu Obeida, the group's spokesman, addressed the Israeli soldiers that "Your colleague Gilad Shalit is missing you and wants to see you and we promised him to get him some of his friends." Hamas captured Shalit in the summer of 2006 during an armed attack on an army base southeast of the Gaza Strip.

Peacemaking efforts offer hope
The contours of a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas are emerging, with diplomacy focusing on international guarantees, including foreign border monitors to oversee any agreement. A Hamas delegation reached Cairo on Tuesday to discuss an Egyptian-proposed truce deal.

Various truce ideas have been floated in recent days in a swirl of diplomacy in the Middle East and at the United Nations, most involving international monitors. Israel has two key objectives - to prevent weapons smuggling from Egypt into Gaza, and to create enough deterrence to persuade Hamas to halt rocket attacks for good.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy led new calls for a truce as he held talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. "We, Europe, want a ceasefire as soon as possible," Sarkozy said on Monday.

But Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert vowed that the campaign would continue until Israel completely wiped out Hamas's ability to fire rockets into Israel. "The results of the operation must be... that Hamas must not only stop firing but must no longer be able to fire," he said.

A Hamas delegation in was trying to thrash out a deal with Egyptian mediators. Egypt had negotiated a previous six-month truce between Israel and Hamas which expired on December 19.


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