UN chief renews plea for immediate ceasefire

UN chief Ban Ki-moon renewed calls for an immediate ceasefire on the first leg of a diplomatic tour of the Middle East. Ban expressed support for Egyptian-led efforts to broker a truce between Israel and the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers.


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REUTERS - United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called again on Wednesday for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza, but there was no sign of an easing of the 19-day-old Israeli offensive.


The only prospect of a ceasefire lay in Egyptian and Turkish mediation between the Jewish state and the Gaza Strip's rulers.


A Hamas delegation was holding talks with Egyptian intelligence officials on an Egyptian initiative, but Hamas has already said it had "substantial observations" about the initiative and that changes to the Egyptian proposals were needed, a sign that mediation efforts may take more time.


Ban, at the start of a Middle East tour to push for an end to Israel's 19-day-old offensive on Gaza, said he hoped the Egyptian efforts would bear fruit soon.


"I repeat my call for an immediate and durable ceasefire," he told a news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.


"Hamas rocket attacks must stop and at the same time I have been condemning the excessive military operation by the Israelis," he said.


Israeli forces have killed 975 Palestinians and wounded thousands in their Gaza offensive. Israel says that on its side 10 soldiers, and three civilians hit by cross-border Hamas rockets, have been killed.


"I ask that all those who have influence with any parties to this conflict, use all means to end the violence and to find a durable solution," Ban said, indicating an acknowledgment that his own ability to influence events was extremely limited.


No Gaza visit by Ban


The U.N. chief, whose tour will also take him to Israel, Jordan and Syria, said he was unlikely to visit the Gaza Strip, partly because of the dangerous situation there.


"I feel very sad when I think of all these civilian killings ... that is why I wanted to visit Gaza at this time, to share their pain," he said. He declined to say what position the Israeli government had taken on his proposed visit to Gaza.


Ban earlier held talks with President Hosni Mubarak. "We shared our feelings and frustrations and pain over the ongoing violence in Gaza," he said afterwards.

Ban's spokesman Ahmed Fawzi said Mubarak told the U.N. chief he hoped that a ceasefire agreement could be reached "within a week at the utmost". Fawzi said Mubarak did not say they were making progress now but that they expected to make progress.


The Egyptian proposal calls for a temporary ceasefire, followed by a long-term truce and the opening of Gaza's border crossings in the presence of officials from the Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces Hamas drove out of Gaza in 2007.


The third phase of the initiative deals with efforts to reconcile Hamas and Abbas's Fatah group.


Lebanese political sources close to Hamas said this week the Islamist group was opposed to three key elements in the Egyptian proposals, including a 15-year truce and the presence of foreign observers at the Rafah crossing point.


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