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McCain takes pro-Israel stance in Sderot

US Republican presidential candidate John McCain on Wednesday visited Sderot, near Gaza, saying, "No nation in the world can be attacked incessantly and have its population killed and intimidated without responding."

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US Republican presidential candidate John McCain on Wednesday showed vigorous support for Israel, where he made a highly symbolic visit to a town hit by near-daily rocket fire from Gaza.

"No nation in the world can be attacked incessantly and have its population killed and intimidated without responding," McCain said in the southern town of Sderot, where he visited a house hit by a rocket fired by Islamists in the Gaza Strip, just a few kilometres (miles) away.

The Arizona senator was in Israel on a fact-finding mission which has also taken him to Iraq and Jordan and has been widely seen as a bid to polish his credentials as a statesman.

"Seeing it first-hand, the situation here is one that is very compelling,"  McCain told reporters in Sderot after touring the town with Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

"Nine hundred rocket attacks in the last three months; this puts an enormous strain on everyone here, especially the children."

Palestinian militants have fired thousands of rockets and mortars shells at southern Israel in the past years, killing 12 people and injuring scores more.

On February 27, Israel launched a five-day blitz on Gaza in response to attacks from the Palestinian enclave, where Hamas routed the forces of moderate Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in June.

McCain said the situation underlined the urgency of moving forward the peace process that was revived at a US-hosted conference in November but has made little progress since.

Earlier in the day, the senator and his colleagues Joe Lieberman (Democrat) and Lindsey Graham (Republican) were taken on a helicopter tour by Barak, who briefed them on security issues.

McCain warned in an interview with the Jerusalem Post that Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia threatened not only the Jewish state but also US and Western interests.

"If Hamas-Hezbollah succeed here, they are going to succeed everywhere.

"They are dedicated to the extinction of everything that the US, Israel and the West believe and stand for," the Republican candidate added.

He also called Iran "a threat for the region", expressing certainty Tehran was "pursuing nuclear weapons".

McCain held talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Wednesday, before travelling to Sderot.

Asked why he did not meet with US-backed president Abbas, the senator pointed out the two had "a good conversation" over the telephone on Monday. "I've had meetings with him in the past and I will have meetings with him in the future.

"I think he is sincere, I think the Palestinian people desire peace and I believe they deserve peace," McCain said of the Palestinian leader.

McCain has insisted the trip was not political, though he clearly stood to gain from being seen on the world stage at a time when Democratic presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton continued to brawl at home.

The senators arrived in Israel on Tuesday evening after a visit to Jordan, where McCain said he supported "Jerusalem as the capital of Israel".

Israel annexed Arab east Jerusalem after the 1967 Middle East war and declared it part of its eternal undivided capital, a claim not recognised by the international community.

McCain was expected to be in London on Thursday.

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