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MID: Civilians sheltered at Gaza hospital before 'horror' attack

By Mehdi Fedouach
16 Jan 2009 2:49 AM

GAZA CITY, Jan 15 AFP - Gripping their wailing children, terrified Gaza civilians scuttled for any shelter they could find on Thursday as Israeli tanks barrelled into the heart of a residential neighbourhood in Gaza City.

Loaded down with babies, toddlers and children, dozens of families arrived at the doors of the Al-Quds hospital shortly after dawn as dozens of tanks roared into the area, sparking furious battles with Palestinian fighters.

Inside the facility, the residents found space where they could. Mothers tried to console their crying children and to make them laugh.

"I brought the children to the hospital because they were scared at home, but here they are even more terrified," said Hossein, 40, who huddled in the pediatric ward with his wife and five children.

"The house next door was completely destroyed in the fighting so we had to get out of there. We can't take this any longer. Look at my children, they're trembling."

But as the frightened civilians took refuge in the facility, part of the hospital caught fire after an Israeli strike. The blaze was brought under control in the medical area but not in the administrative building.

The attack put about 100 patients and medical staff at risk, according to the international Red Cross, while a doctor inside said many of them were trapped.

"The Israelis are bombing and attacking all around the hospital. We can't get out. There's fire, and we're trapped inside. The water has been cut off," French doctor Regis Garrigue told AFP by telephone from the building.

The hospital was hit after around 12 hours of "incessant" bombing, said Garrigue, the president and founder of the French medical aid agency Help Doctors.

The collapse of the entire wing of a building triggered a moment of panic among the sheltering patients and families, and caused a fire in the building.

"I can't even describe the horror of that moment," he said.

Around about the same time, two cameramen for Abu Dhabi television were wounded when an Israeli strike hit a building in Gaza City housing several international and Arab media outlets, witnesses said.

And the UN partially suspended its operations in Gaza after Israeli shells smashed into its compound, setting fire to warehouses holding badly-needed aid.

A deafening cacophony of tank shells, missiles, artillery, helicopter gunships and automatic rifles filled the air as battles unfolded less than 300 metres from the facility beneath a thick pall of smoke.

Palestinian fighters met the advancing troops with mortar and anti-tank rockets. Tanks fired shells on the ground and planes hit the area with missiles from above.

Armed Hamas fighters dressed in blue and black uniforms, one of them carrying the green flag of his Islamist movement, ran down a street 100 metres from the hospital, firing Kalashnikov rifles.

Smoke billowed above several other neighbourhoods in Gaza City and in the north. Fires were raging in some parts of the buildings.

The fighting sent clouds into the air so thick that buildings 100 metres away were obscured.

As the morning wore on, and the fighting grew more intense, dozens more families, clutching hurriedly packed bags, arrived at the hospital and tried to find a spot wherever they could.

Meanwhile, Bashar Murad, a doctor and the head of the ambulance services for the Red Crescent, waited helplessly.

"I have three dead bodies at 500 metres, but I can't get to them," he said. "I have numerous wounded less than a kilometre away, but I can't move without authorisation," Murad said.

Before the ambulances can move anywhere, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) must call the Israeli army and receive a green light, he said.

"It's hard for me to stay here while people may be dying. But I don't have a choice."