Israel hits Gaza tunnels, US envoy backs truce
Jerusalem, January 28, 2009
US President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy called in Egypt on Wednesday for a Gaza ceasefire to be consolidated and pledged the new administration would vigorously pursue peace and stability in the region.
A surge of violence has threatened the fragile separate truces that Israel and the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers put into effect on January 18 after a 22-day Israeli offensive.
Israeli aircraft bombed smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border in a response to the killing on Tuesday of an Israeli soldier on patrol along Israel's frontier with the coastal enclave.
Citing "security incidents in the south", a senior Israeli official said Defence Minister Ehud Barak cancelled a planned visit to the United States, where he was to have held talks on Thursday with Defence Secretary Robert Gates.
While Israeli leaders weighed more military action, Palestinian work crews used giant yellow bulldozers and backhoes to repair tunnels damaged by bombing during the Gaza war and in the latest attack.
Israel fears Hamas could rebuild the underground network to replenish an arsenal of rockets used in cross-border attacks on its southern communities before and during the Gaza campaign.
Some 1,300 Palestinians, including at least 700 civilians, were killed in the offensive, the Hamas-run Health Ministry in the Gaza Strip said. Israel, which said it launched its assaults to stop rocket salvoes, put its death toll in the war at 10 soldiers and three civilians.
Former US Senator George Mitchell, Obama's envoy, said in Cairo it was "of critical importance that the ceasefire be extended and consolidated, and we support Egypt's continuing efforts in that regard."
He was speaking at a news conference after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose country is trying to mediate a long-term truce.
The envoy, who helped to resolve the Northern Ireland conflict and headed a commission that made Israeli-Palestinian peace recommendations in 2001, said Washington was "committed to vigorously pursuing lasting peace and stability in the region".
Mitchell later arrived in Israel and planned to meet Israeli leaders. He will also hold talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank on Thursday. - Reuters