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MID: Israeli tanks, troops enter Gaza in ground offensive

By Sakher Abu El Oun and Mai Yaghi
04 Jan 2009 11:53 AM

GAZA CITY, Jan 4 AFP - Israeli tanks and troops entered Gaza late on Saturday and fought fierce battles with Hamas, heightening an eight-day-old offensive that has killed hundreds of Palestinians and caused widespread destruction.

A burning fuel depot hit by a tank lit up the night sky soon after troops crossed the border while the air force swooped on dozens of targets in the biggest Israeli military operation since its 2006 war in Lebanon.

Israeli tanks were reported to be in battles around Gaza City and the northern towns of Beit Lahiya and Jabaliya. Hamas forces fired back with mortars and rockets, witnesses said.

France led international criticism of the Israeli offensive and the UN Security Council called a special meeting on the Gaza crisis, which has caused critical shortages of food and power for the 1.5 million population.

Dozens of Hamas fighters were killed in the initial battles, an Israeli military spokesman said. The Islamist group said on its television station that Israeli soldiers had also been killed and vowed to turn Gaza into a cemetery for the invading force.

There was no independent confirmation of their claims.

The Israeli government called up thousands of reservists to join the ground offensive aimed at ending rocket and mortar attacks by Hamas and its allies.

Gaza emergency services said one child was killed and 11 other children were wounded in one tank attack.

In a statement, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said the army would take over sites in Gaza used to fired rockets at Israel and vowed to deal a hard blow to the Islamists.

"It will not be easy or short but we are determined," Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said.

The Israeli army had "dealt an unprecedented heavy blow to Hamas" he declared.

Hamas remained defiant, vowing the Israeli army would pay a high price for its invasion.

"Your incursion into Gaza will not be a walk in the park and Gaza will become your cemetery," Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said.

Thousands of Israeli troops and tanks had encircled Gaza and artillery guns fired shells into the territory ahead of the offensive.

Militant rocket fire into Israel on Saturday left three people slightly wounded. Six were fired after the start of the land offensive, Israeli police said.

Hours before the ground offensive, an Israeli jet hit a mosque in Jabaliya, killing at least 16 people among more than 200 people at prayer, medics and witnesses said.

Four children - two brothers aged 10 and 12 and two cousins under 16 - were among the dead at the Ibrahim al-Maqadna mosque, medics said. Dozens of wounded were dragged from the rubble.

Two Hamas military commanders were also killed in air strikes on Saturday.

Israel has staged nearly 800 air raids against Hamas leaders and targets since Operation Cast Lead began on December 27.

Gaza medics say more than 463 Palestinians have been killed - including 75 children - and 2,310 wounded.

Four people have been killed in Israel by more than 500 rockets fired from Gaza over the same period.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged an immediate end to the ground offensive, but Israel has had strong support from the United States.

In his weekly radio address, President George W Bush called on Hamas "to turn away from terror" and rejected calls for a unilateral ceasefire that he said would allow the Islamists to continue hitting Israel with rockets.

US president-elect Barack Obama made no immediate comment, but many international leaders condemned the offensive.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said the offensive will have grave consequences for the Middle East, a senior aide said.

"President Abbas vigorously condemns this aggression and calls for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to put an end to it," Saeb Erakat told AFP.

Abbas was to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy at his Ramallah headquarters on Monday before going to the Security Council to make a plea for a ceasefire.

Israel has kept Gaza virtually sealed off since Hamas seized power there in June 2007 from Fatah forces loyal to Abbas.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called the ground invasion a threat to Middle East peace efforts.

"France condemns the Israeli ground offensive against Gaza just as it condemns the continuing firing of rockets," Kouchner said in a statement.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged Olmert to halt the military action, Brown's office said.

Demonstrations against the Israeli action were staged around the world.