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Israeli soldier feared captured as Gaza truce crumbles

AFP

The Israeli army on Friday said initial reports indicated a soldier had been captured by Palestinian militants during an operation in southern Gaza, as a US and UN-brokered ceasefire unraveled just hours after it began.

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The soldier went missing shortly after Israeli officials said fighting had broken out in Rafah, on the southern tip of the enclosed Palestinian enclave.

An Israeli military spokesman said initial reports indicated the missing Israeli soldier was captured by Palestinian militants.

Speaking to reporters during a conference call, Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), said, "(Israeli) forces operating to decommission an (infiltration) tunnel were attacked. Initial indications are that a soldier has been abducted by terrorists during the operation."

Earlier Friday, FRANCE 24 reported that three Israeli soldiers were killed in fighting in Rafah.

Hours later, the IDF confirmed that besides the soldier feared taken captive, Israeli troops had incurred further losses during the Friday morning operation.

Hamas denial

In an interview on FRANCE 24’s Arabic channel, a senior Hamas official denied that the group had captured an Israeli soldier. A number of militant groups, including the Islamic Jihad, operate in the densely populated Gaza Strip.

News of the soldier’s apparent abduction came just hours after a three-day ceasefire began at 8am local time with a brief lull in the fighting, according to reporters in Gaza City.

But with fighting breaking out in southern Gaza, Israeli officials informed the UN that the ceasefire was "over" and that operations would resume, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz.

The latest fighting appeared to be centered in and around Rafah, a southern Gaza city right on the Egyptian border. Underground tunnels from Rafah into the Egyptian Sinai Peninsular have been used to supply the blockaded Palestinian enclave as well as to smuggle arms, according to Israeli officials.

Meanwhile Palestinian health officials said more than 20 Gazans were killed by Israeli shelling Friday morning. Both sides accuse each other of violating the terms of the ceasefire.

More than 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed since Israel launched a military offensive in Gaza on July 8. More than 60 Israelis, nearly all of them soldiers, have been killed over the past three weeks.

Previous failed ceasefire attempts

Friday’s collapsed ceasefire was the fifth humanitarian pause to have collapsed since the Gaza operation began.

The latest deal was announced early Friday in a joint statement by US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, marking the most ambitious attempt so far to end more than three weeks of fighting, and followed mounting international alarm over a rising Palestinian civilian death toll.

The ceasefire was to be followed by Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Cairo on a longer-term solution.

But Kerry cautioned there were “no guarantees” that the lull would bring an end to the conflict, now in its fourth week.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP)

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