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Deadly fighting rocks Gaza

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- At least 18 Palestinians, including children and civilians, and three Israeli soldiers were reported killed yesterday in heavy fighting in Gaza, in one of the bloodiest days in weeks.

The Israeli military said it had struck armed militants and was checking the reports of civilian casualties.

Amid the violence, Israel resumed the pumping of emergency fuel supplies into Gaza after a weeklong suspension. The flow stopped April 9 after Palestinian militant groups attacked the sole fuel depot along Israel's border with Gaza, killing two Israeli civilians who worked there.

The latest violence started Tuesday night with an army operation in northern Gaza aimed at keeping suspected militants away from the border fence, the Israeli military said. During the ensuing clashes, the military said, Palestinian gunmen opened fire at Israeli soldiers from within a mosque used for storing explosives. One soldier and several Palestinian militants were wounded.

As that operation wound up in the morning, Israeli forces along the border spotted a group of Palestinian gunmen approaching the fence south of the fuel depot at Nahal Oz and rushed to confront them, the military said. Three members of the Israeli force and four militants belonging to Hamas, the Islamic group that controls Gaza, were killed.

Hamas said its fighters had ambushed the Israelis.

Clashes and Israeli airstrikes extended into the afternoon. The deadliest occurred in central Gaza, where 14 Palestinians were killed, according to Dr. Muawiya Hassanein, director of emergency services in Gaza. Hassanein said that all of the dead were civilians and that five were children.

A local cameraman for the Reuters news agency, Fadel Shanaa, 23, was killed when a missile struck his clearly marked vehicle, the Reuters bureau in Gaza said.

Asked about the civilian casualties, Maj. Avital Leibovich, a spokeswoman for the Israeli army, said the military had struck at an armed group. "It could be that civilians were nearby. It would not be the first time," she said.

Leibovich said that if a cameraman was killed, "we apologize for that. It was not intentional," she said, adding that journalists take a risk operating in fighting zones.

More than 10 rockets and 26 mortar shells were fired from Gaza toward Israel yesterday, an Israeli army spokeswoman said, but they landed in open areas or in Palestinian territory and caused no injury.

A Hamas delegation left Gaza for Cairo yesterday afternoon, apparently for talks with Egyptian officials. A Hamas spokesman in Gaza said the delegation would also meet there today with former President Jimmy Carter, who has angered Israeli and American officials with his insistence on meeting representatives of the group during his visit to the region. The United States, Israel and the European Union classify Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Egypt has been trying to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Israel has denied any contacts with the organization, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said recently that the daily rocket attacks against Israel from Gaza are "not a prescription for relaxation or compromise."

The Israeli Defense Ministry had announced in advance that it would allow the resumption of fuel supplies to Gaza yesterday, but the violence delayed the delivery by a few hours. The Palestinians received fuel needed to run the Gaza power plant and cooking gas, but no gasoline for private cars.

Israel has been restricting the amount of fuel entering Gaza for months in what Israel has called a response to the constant rocket fire. International organizations say the amount sent to Gaza is inadequate.

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