... So that You may be kept informed

MID: UN suspends some Gaza operations as shells smash into HQ

16 Jan 2009 1:21 AM

GAZA CITY, Jan 15 AFP - The UN on Thursday suspended some of its operations in Gaza after Israeli shells smashed into its compound, setting fire to warehouses of badly-needed aid and prompting outrage from UN chief Ban Ki-moon as he arrived in Israel.

"Israeli tank shells fell inside the UNRWA complex in Gaza, injuring three of its employees," spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna told AFP, adding that the UN's operations had been affected.

"We will continue our operations in the Gaza Strip but we are suspending them in the compound of Gaza City since the trucks with aid cannot leave the area following the fire," he said.

The fire, which was still raging hours later, destroyed an estimated "tens of millions of dollars worth of aid", Hasna said.

UNRWA director John Ging told CNN that the situation at the compound was "very serious".

"The workshops area of our compound, the big transport hub and warehouse, are on fire," he said.

"We have 700 people in another area of the compound, two of them are injured. We are endeavouring to evacuate them."

He claimed an artillery shell was fired into the compound while a phosphorous shell landed in the area of the warehouse and the workshop.

"It is a big problem for us as we have a massive fuel depot there ... This is the hub of the entire aid operation in Gaza, fuel, food, everything is stored here," said Ging.

"Let's have a full investigation ... The matter is, we are having a phosphorous fire now, which is very difficult because if you put water on this it becomes toxic."

Israel insists that all weapons used are in line with international law.

Another humanitarian group, CARE International, said it too had been forced to suspend all deliveries of food and medical supplies due to heavy bombardment in and around its warehouses and distribution sites in Gaza City.

The shelling of the UNRWA complex, on the 20th day of Israel's war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip, prompted a furious response from the UN Secretary General who arrived in Israel earlier on Thursday.

"I have conveyed my strong protest and outrage and demanded a full explanation from the defence minister and foreign minister," Ban told reporters in Tel Aviv.

Ban said Defence Minister Ehud Barak had assured him the incident had been "a grave mistake" which was being taken "very seriously".

"He assured me that extra caution will be given to UN facilities and staff and that this will not be repeated," he said.

Barak pointed the finger of blame at Hamas.

"Hamas uses Palestinian civilians as human shields and fires at IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) soldiers from sites adjacent to UN complexes," he was quoted by his office as saying.

"IDF soldiers respond and will respond to any attacks against them.

"The IDF will continue to operate while making every possible effort not to hurt civilians and will offer help to the UN in humanitarian assistance."

The shelling of the UN compound also sparked angry international reaction, with EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel saying he was "shocked and dismayed" and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemning it as "indefensible" and "unacceptable."

France condemned the attack "in the strongest terms."

Ban, who is in Israel as part of a regional tour to push for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza conflict which so far has killed nearly 1,100 Palestinians, said the death toll was unacceptable.

"The people of Gaza are facing a dire humanitarian crisis," he said. "This is a real fact."

"The number of casualties has reached an unbearable point," Ban said. "We have no more time to lose, we must end the civilian suffering now."

But he said the elements were in place for Israel's war in Gaza, launched by Israel on December 27, to end "now".

"The time has come for the violence to stop and for us to change fundamentally the dynamics in Gaza and to pursue again the peace talks for a two-state solution which is the only road for lasting security for Israel."

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni insisted the Jewish state would decide how and when to end its massive campaign aimed at halting rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel and dubbed Operation Cast Lead.

"We are doing our own assessments on daily basis and according to them, we will decide when to stop," she said.

"Israel will also maintain its right to defend itself when it comes to stopping the smuggling of weapons, and not only rocket fire."

Ban is expected to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert later on Thursday and will travel to the West Bank city of Ramallah to meet with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Friday.