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Hamas warns of more hostages

GAZA CITY: Hamas yesterday warned it would capture more Israeli soldiers if the Jewish state launches a ground offensive against its Gaza Strip stronghold.

If they go in, there will be more friends for Shalit," said a message on Hamas's internal radio, in a reference to Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier seized by Hamas and other militants in a brazen cross-border raid in June 2006. He still remains in Gaza captivity.

Israeli warplanes, gunboats and artillery units, meanwhile, blasted more than 40 Hamas targets yesterday, including weapons storage facilities, training centres and leaders' homes as Israel's offensive against Gaza's rulers entered a second week.

There were tentative signs that the current phase of fighting may be nearing an end. Most of the airstrikes targeted empty buildings and abandoned sites, suggesting Israel may be running out of targets.

But in a sign that the offensive was entering a new phase, Israeli artillery units attacked Gaza for the first time, military officials said. The shelling was directed at open areas, but was seen as a possible signal that a ground invasion could be nearing.

Early yesterday, it dropped leaflets in Gaza City ordering people off the streets.

Some 10,000 Israeli troops, including tank, artillery and special operations units, were massed on the Gaza border and prepared to invade.

In the latest attack, at least 10 Palestinians were killed when an Israeli air raid struck a mosque during prayers in the northern town of Jabaliya, medics and witnesses said.

More than 200 people were inside the mosque praying when it was struck, witnesses said.

The Israeli army struck the homes of two Hamas operatives, saying the buildings were used to store weapons and plan attacks. Hamas outposts, training camps and rocket launching sites also were targeted, it said. The army also struck the American International School, the most prestigious educational institution in Gaza.

The airstrike demolished the school's main building and killed a night watchman. Two Palestinians were killed in a separate airstrike, while four others, including a midlevel militant commander, died of wounds sustained earlier, Gaza health officials said.

Gaza sources said Mohammad Al Jammal, 40, was a Hamas military commander while Israel said he was responsible "for the entire rocket launching enterprise in all of Gaza City."

Israel briefly opened its border on Friday to allow nearly 300 Palestinians with foreign passports to flee the besieged area. The evacuees told of crippling shortages of water, electricity and medicine.

Maxwell Gaylard, UN humanitarian co-ordinator for the Palestinian Territories, estimated that a quarter of the Palestinians killed were civilians and a 'significant number' of the dead were women and children. He said some 2,000 people have been wounded in the past week.

Israel denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and has increased its shipments of goods into Gaza. It says it has confined its attacks to militants while trying to prevent civilian casualties.

Arab League chief Amr Moussa expressed surprise at Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's claim that there was no humanitarian crisis after a week of air raids.

"I am greatly surprised by, and I reject, the words of the Israeli foreign minister (Livni), who asks: 'Is there a humanitarian crisis? There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza,'" he said.

Moussa also criticised the Security Council for not responding faster to the crisis.

Meanwhile, foreign ministers of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference slammed Israel's 'ruthless aggression' and urged a ceasefire as they began a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

The organisation's Secretary-General, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, called on all parties "within and beyond Palestine to put aside political calculations and act toward stemming the bloodshed and enable the population of the Gaza Strip to at least maintain living conditions, however harsh they are.

"Therefore, we call strongly for an immediate ceasefire and for medical and humanitarian supplies to be allowed into the Gaza Strip through all crossings," he said in a statement.

He stressed the need for various Palestinian factions and parties to launch a national dialogue and end their divisions.

Ihsanoglu also urged the OIC to consider calling an emergency meeting of the UN Human Rights Council to seek an end to the attacks on Palestinians.

Thousands of protesters across Europe marched, rallied and even hurled shoes or stones yesterday to demand an end to the attacks.

In London, several thousand people, many carrying Palestinian flags, marched past Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Downing Street residence to a rally in Trafalgar Square. Outside Downing Street, hundreds of them stopped and threw shoes at the tall iron gates.

Among the London marchers were activist Bianca Jagger, ex-Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox and comedian Alexei Sayle.

There were protests in Duesseldorf and Frankfurt, Germany, Salzburg, Austria, Madrid, Spain, and Ankara, Turkey.



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