Deadly Israeli strike follows Hamas attack

Israeli troops backed by helicopters stormed into the Gaza Strip, killing 17 Palestinians after a Hamas attack earlier Wednesday killed three Israeli soldiers.


Three Israeli soldiers and 17 Palestinians, one a cameraman for an international news agency, were killed on Wednesday as troops backed by helicopters stormed into the Gaza Strip.

Fadel Shana, 23, a Reuters cameraman, was critically wounded 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.

The Israeli military said it was looking into the incident.

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 members of the brigades were killed earlier by an Israeli unit backed by helicopters, and six others were captured and taken back 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, most of them 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.

The United Nations earlier called for larger quantities of fuel to be supplied and distributed in the impoverished territory, which has been under a crippling Israeli embargo since Hamas seized power in June.

A UN statement said that even before the attack on Nahal Oz, the amount of fuel delivered by Israel was "inadequate to fulfil Gaza's requirements."

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