All eyes on UN amid fresh push for Gaza truce
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France chairs a UN Security Council session debating renewed calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza Tuesday, capping a day of frenzied shuttle diplomacy in the region by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
AFP - The UN Security Council was set Tuesday to resume debate on a call for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip with Israel under mounting pressure to end its 11-day military onslaught that has claimed 635 Palestinian lives.
France, the council chair this month, was working with Arab states on a draft UN resolution that would urge an immediate end to the Israeli military offensive in Gaza as well as to rocket fire into Israel by Gaza-based militants.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was to chair a ministerial session of the 15-member council, scheduled for 5:00 pm (2200 GMT), to be attended by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and several Arab foreign ministers.
Early Tuesday Kouchner huddled with an Arab ministerial delegation led by Arab League chief Amr Mussa to try to find common ground on elements of a proposed draft resolution.
"We are working in the same direction," Kouchner said after the meeting.
But a Western diplomat said that no new text had yet been circulated, although there were "ideas, elements, building blocks."
He said further progress would depend on the outcome of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's current Middle East tour.
Sarkozy on Tuesday returned to Egypt for fresh talks with his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak after holding talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.
French Premier Francois Fillon said Tuesday that there was still a slim chance of a Gaza ceasefire, which explained why Sarkozy decided to return to Egypt for further meetings on the issue.
Last Saturday, the United States, Israel's main ally, blocked adoption by the Security Council of a non-binding statement to urge an end to the Israeli military assault in Gaza.
Tuesday, the White House reiterated that it wanted to see a "durable" ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, stopping short of endorsing a proposed humanitarian truce for Gaza.
"We are working to help bring about a durable ceasefire," spokeswoman Dana Perino told AFP when asked if President George W. Bush would be ready to back a humanitarian truce.
The Arab League meanwhile accused Washington Tuesday of blocking the proposed draft that would also urge the lifting of the Israeli siege of Gaza to allow humanitarian access to the beleaguered Palestinian population, protection of Palestinian civilians, a resumed Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a mechanism to monitor the truce and the protection of civilians.
Arab foreign ministers lobbying for the resolution at UN headquarters are "facing difficulties and obstacles because of the US supportive stance toward Israel," said Mohammed Subaih, Arab League deputy secretary general for Palestinian affairs.
On the ground, Israeli tanks and troops surged into towns across Gaza Strip, pounding Hamas targets, but hits on three UN-run schools killed at least 50 people sparking urgent new ceasefire calls.
One Israeli strike killed at least 40 people who had taken refuge inside a UN school in the Gaza Strip, medics said.
The United Nations demanded an investigation into the incidents and into other civilian deaths in the Israeli onslaught.
"These tragic incidents need to be investigated, and if international humanitarian law has been contravened, those responsible must be held accountable," said Max Gaylard, UN humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories.
But the Israeli military insisted Tuesday that it was not targeting civilians in its war on Hamas in Gaza and blamed the Islamist movement for the mounting civilian death toll.
Since Israel unleashed its war on Hamas in Gaza on December 27, at least 635 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,900 wounded, according to Gaza medics. More than 160 of them have been children.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon was meanwhile in Washington Tuesday to attend a farewell lunch with Bush.
The UN boss told reporters Tuesday he would use the occasion to impress on Bush the urgent need for a Gaza truce and for "a credible mechanism to ensure the protection of the Palestinian people, as well as humanitarian assistance."
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