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Middle east

UN agency halts Gaza imports in dispute with Hamas

Latest update : 2009-02-07

A major UN aid agency has suspended shipments to the Gaza Strip after Hamas seized supplies for the second time in a week. Hamas denies confiscating any supplies, claiming it was a misunderstanding between drivers.

REUTERS - A major United Nations aid agency said it suspended importing goods into the Gaza Strip on Friday because the Islamist group Hamas that rules the territory had seized supplies for the second time this week.

Hamas denied it confiscated any supplies, saying it was a misunderstanding between drivers due to a lack of coordination.

Christopher Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which supports much of Gaza's 1.5 million population, said Hamas forces had seized 10 trucks loaded with humanitarian supplies on Friday. Two days earlier, Hamas men took blankets and food from an UNRWA store in Gaza.

"The Hamas government must return all of the aid that's been confiscated ... and we have to be given by the Hamas government credible assurances that this will not happen again," Gunness told Reuters. "If it doesn't happen, then we will continue with the suspension of our imports."

U.N. Secretary-General Bank Ki-moon also pressed Hamas to release the aid shipment and "refrain from interference with the provision and distribution of humanitarian assistance", his spokeswoman said.

A Hamas spokesman said two of its members had met the head of UNRWA and were able to "end the crisis", but it was unclear if the agency would return to normal operations.

Gunness said that the aid agency had supplies in reserve and food distribution would be able to continue for days.

Ahmed al-Kurd, welfare minister in Gaza's Hamas government, said the supplies were taken by mistake.

"It was a misunderstanding between drivers," Kurd said. "We have told UNRWA they can come ... and take the goods. For some reason, they did not come."

Humanitarian groups have complained that Israel has obstructed the entry of supplies into Gaza, further stifling reconstruction efforts after an Israeli offensive killed 1,300 Palestinians, left 5,000 wounded and thousands homeless.

UNRWA extended its aid roster following the 22-day Israeli campaign last month to include employees of the Palestinian Authority, which answers to Hamas's rival, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah faction.

The overseeing of aid and reconstruction in the Gaza Strip is a source of friction between Hamas and Fatah, which lost control of the territory to the Islamist group in internal fighting in 2007.

UNRWA was set up in 1948 to provide assistance to Palestinian refugees.

Date created : 2009-02-07