- Ban Ki-moon - Hamas - United Nations
The Gaza Strip braced for more violence Thursday after three Israeli soldiers and 17 Palestinians, one a cameraman for an international news agency, were killed in a helicopter-backed incursion.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon in a statement expressed grave concern at the mounting violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel and urged all parties to show restraint.
Fadel Shana, 23, a Reuters cameraman, was critically wounded Wednesday when a missile hit his vehicle in the central Gaza Strip. He died after being taken to hospital, Dr Muawiya Hassanein, the head of Gaza emergency services, told AFP.
An AFP photographer driving behind the Reuters jeep, which had TV and press stickers plastered across its doors and roof, said the vehicle burst into flames after a missile slammed into it.
When a group of photographers rushed to try to rescue their colleague a second missile struck the area, he said.
Two more people were killed in the air strike, medics said. Their identities were not immediately known.
An Israeli military spokesman expressed regret after the incident.
"We regret the death of a photographer, but it must be pointed out that there's a war going on against armed terrorists who are extremists and dangerous," he told AFP.
"Members of the media or civilians put themselves in danger" by entering a combat zone," the spokesman said.
Shana was driving near the Al-Bureij refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, where at least nine Palestinians were killed in an earlier air strike, all of them civilians, according to Hassanein.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas strongly condemned the Israeli military assault and called on all sides to respect a ceasefire.
"President Abbas strongly condemned Israel's escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip," said spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina, who is travelling with Abbas on a three-day visit to Moscow.
Abbas, whose forces were driven from Gaza in June when Hamas seized power there, has been holding US-sponsored peace talks with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert since November.
Israel has meanwhile launched near-daily military operations in the Gaza Strip aimed at halting rocket fire on southern Israel.
The rockets, most of them home-made, have killed 14 people since 2000.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Wednesday: "We are aware of the suffering of the people of Gaza, but in our eyes, the suffering of the residents of communities that border on that area, and those of the Israeli army, count more."
Earlier in the day clashes erupted after Palestinian gunmen approached the security fence separating Gaza from Israel near the Nahal Oz fuel terminal which supplies most of Gaza's fuel and which was attacked last week.
"Three soldiers were killed and three were wounded in an exchange of fire," an army spokeswoman said.
Hamas claimed it killed the soldiers in a "sophisticated ambush."
"This ambush is a message to let the Zionist enemy know that Gaza will remain a cauldron that will break its will and criminal plans," said Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas's armed wing the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.
Four brigades members were killed earlier by an Israeli unit backed by helicopters, and six others were captured and taken to Israel at dawn, medics said.
Another Palestinian militant was killed in an Israeli air strike in the northern Gaza Strip that also wounded three people.
Palestinian militants meanwhile fired at least 11 homemade rockets and 26 mortar shells at southern Israel without causing casualties, the army said.
The latest casualties bring to 409 the number of people killed, mostly Gaza militants, since Israel and the Palestinians relaunched formal peace talks at a US conference in November, according to an AFP count.
Wednesday's toll was the highest in Gaza since March 1, when Israeli forces killed more than 60 Palestinians in a single day during a land and air blitz.
The clashes came one week after Palestinian gunmen killed two Israeli civilians who worked at the Nahal Oz terminal, prompting Israel to halt all fuel deliveries to Gaza.
A security official said the terminal reopened on Wednesday, but only to transfer fuel for Gaza's power plant.
A UN statement Wednesday said Ban "calls on Israel to abide by its obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law" and "also reiterates his condemnation of rocket fire against Israeli civilian targets."