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MID: Israeli diplomats to US, Egypt for truce talks

By Ibrahim Barzak And Mark Lavie
16 Jan 2009 10:35 PM

GAZA CITY, Jan 16 AP - Top Israeli diplomats headed for Egypt and the United States on Friday in what appeared to be a final push toward a ceasefire to end Israel's punishing Gaza offensive against Hamas militants.

In the West Bank, UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged Israel to immediately stop its three-week-old war, meant to halt militant rocket fire on southern Israel from Gaza.

"I strongly urge Israeli leadership and government to declare a ceasefire unilaterally," Ban said from Ramallah, the seat of the West Bank government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas' fierce rival.

"It's time to think about a unilateral ceasefire from the Israeli government."

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev dismissed the notion.

"I don't believe that there's a logical expectation in the international community that Israel unilaterally cease fire while Hamas would continue to target cities, trying to kill our people," Regev said.

On Thursday, Israeli forces shelled a UN compound in Gaza that had been sheltering hundreds of refugees from the fighting, sending thousands of tonnes of food aid up in flames.

Ban is on a weeklong trip to the region meant to promote a truce after both sides ignored a UN resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire.

He will not meet with Gaza's Hamas rulers, who have been shunned by much of the international community since they violently overran Gaza in June 2007.

Some 1,100 Palestinians have been killed since the war began on December 27, including 346 children, according to UN figures.

Thirteen Israelis have been killed, four by rocket fire.

Chief Israeli negotiator Amos Gilad arrived in Cairo on Friday for his second visit in two days to seek clarifications and express Israeli views about the latest Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire.

And after midnight, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni left for Washington, where she was expected to sign a memorandum of understanding with the US over ways to stop arms smuggling to Hamas.

The Bush administration was racing in its final days to negotiate a deal on American support for mediation efforts under which the US would give technical support and expertise to prevent Hamas from rearming, US and Israeli diplomats said.

Before leaving Israel, Livni made it clear that halting arms smuggling was a crucial part of any truce deal.

"Israel is going to retain its right to defend itself anyway, also when it comes to the smuggling of weapons, not only to rockets being fired at Israel," she said.

Hamas has demanded an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the opening of border crossings blockaded by Israel.

"These are our demands and we don't accept any political movement that does not accept them," the movement's top political leader, Khaled Mashaal, said in a televised address from his headquarters in Damascus, Syria.