Gaza death toll 'over 1,000'

On the same day that medical sources put the Palestinian death count in Israel's war on Hamas in Gaza at over 1,000, a purported new Osama bin Laden recording emerged on Wednesday, calling for a new holy war on behalf of Palestinians.


Also read: Israeli forces pursue drive into Gaza


AFP - International pleas mounted Wednesday for a halt to the Gaza war amid heightened concern as the death toll in the Palestinian territory passed 1,000 people.

While Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden seized on the conflict to call for a holy war against Israel, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas could be edging closer.

"The outlines of a ceasefire have begun to appear, even if we still have to face serious obstacles," Kouchner told the French parliament. "I'm convinced that our efforts will bear fruit," he added.

His comments were echoed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy who said he had "a good feeling that things are moving in a positive way" as he held talks with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Paris.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said in Jerusalem that Gaza's Islamist movement Hamas had accepted an Egyptian initiative to halt the war and "is going to publicly express its support and acceptance".

While an Egyptian official said earlier that Hamas had "reacted favourably" to Egyptian efforts to end the fighting, according to MENA news agency in Cairo where UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon began his Middle East peace tour.

After talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Wednesday, Ban repeated his call for an "immediate and durable ceasefire," and urged "both parties... to stop the fighting now. There is no time to lose."

Middle Eastern countries also added their calls to an end to the violence.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah called an emergency summit of Gulf countries in Riyadh for Thursday due to escalating tensions "resulting from the Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people," the Saudi SPA news agency said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the BBC Wednesday that his country is doing everything to mediate a truce and warned that Israel's offensive on the Gaza Strip risks "sowing the seeds of extremism around the region".

His views were echoed by Jordan's King Abdullah II who said Israel "should be forced to be committed to UN Security Council Resolution 1860," which was adopted last week, demanding an "immediate, durable" ceasefire leading to the "full withdrawal" of Israeli forces from Gaza.

The UN General Assembly was to hold an emergency session Thursday to press for a ceasefire call.

Meanwhile a number of European deputies insisted Wednesday that the EU take sanctions against Israel amid wider calls to freeze deeper ties with the Jewish state.

"If it remains 'business as usual' in our relations with Israel, then you are burying, along with 1,000 dead in Gaza, the EU's human rights policy and the European project," said French MEP Helene Flautre, who visited Gaza Sunday.

Bolivian President Evo Morales said his country had severed ties with Israel to protest the Gaza war, following the January 6 decision by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, his socialist ally, to expel Israel's ambassador.

Representatives from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference demanded an immediate ceasefire and total withdrawl of Israeli forces from Gaza, while also calling for the blockade on the strip to be lifted.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in his first audio broadcast for more than eight months, called on Muslims to declare a holy war on Israel because of the Gaza conflict.

In a recording entitled "A Call for Jihad to Stop Aggression Against Gaza," bin Laden also criticised Arab countries' handling of the conflict.

Gaza medics say more than 1,000 Palestinians have been killed, including 292 children, and more than 4,500 people wounded in the conflict. Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed in combat or by rocket attacks.

Aid agencies have warned of a growing humanitarian crisis because the vast majority of the 1.5 million population depends on foreign aid.

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, speaking after a visit to Gaza's main hospital, described the situation as "dramatic".

"There's an increasing number of women and children being wounded and going to hospitals," Jakob Kellenberger told reporters in Jerusalem.

Amnesty International called for an arms embargo to stem the tide of blood in the Gaza Strip, urging the United States to scrap plans to ship consignments of weapons to its ally Israel.

Iran meanwhile accused Israel of preventing a Red Crescent ship carrying medicines and food from reaching the Gaza Strip on Wednesday.

An Israeli army spokesman confirmed to AFP that the navy had stopped an Iranian boat from approaching the Gaza coastline. Israel has enforced a naval blockade along the Gaza coast.

A first French plane carrying humanitarian aid to Israel for distribution to the besieged Gaza population was to leave Wednesday. In all, two planes will carry 76 tonnes of French aid.

Israel on Tuesday appointed a minister to oversee the coordination of international humanitarian efforts for Gaza Strip.


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