Israel forces start Gaza withdrawal
AFP - 1 hour 1 minute ago
GAZA CITY (AFP) - - Israel began pulling troops out of the Gaza Strip on Sunday as a fragile unilateral ceasefire came into effect after its deadliest offensive ever on the battered Palestinian territory.
As medics scrambled to pull dozens of bodies from the mountains of rubble left by Israel's three-week offensive, Palestinian militants said they would hold their fire for one week to allow Israeli troops to withdraw.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel intended to withdraw troops "as quickly as possible" and had no intention of reoccupying a territory from which it withdrew settlers and the army in 2005.
"We are not interested in staying in the Gaza Strip, we want to leave as quickly as possible," Olmert said at a press conference with European leaders.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the halt in fighting a "window of opportunity" in terms of achieving a "lasting peace" between Israel and the Palestinians.
"There's no alternative to a two-state solution. Everyone must back the right of Israel to live as a Jewish state just as everyone must recognise the Palestinians' right to a Palestinian state," Merkel said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed Israel's ceasefire but said: "This is only a first step, it must go further."
The delegation from Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, earlier attended a summit in Egypt with Arab leaders aimed at shoring up the truce.
Egypt held separate talks with the Islamist Hamas group which rules Gaza and President Hosni Mubarak announced plans to host an international aid conference to help rebuild Gaza.
"This fragile ceasefire has got to be followed immediately, if it is to be sustainable, by humanitarian access... by troop withdrawals, by an end to arms trafficking," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in Egypt.
In Jerusalem, Brown urged Israel to reopen crossings into Gaza.
After exchanges of gunfire and an air strike punctured what Olmert acknowledged was a "fragile" unilateral ceasefire, Hamas and other armed groups announced their own one-week ceasefire.
"(We) demand that enemy forces withdraw in a week and open all the border crossings to permit the entry of humanitarian aid and basic goods," Mussa Abu Marzuk, the deputy leader of Hamas's politburo, said in Damascus.
Militants in the Gaza Strip, however, fired at least 18 rockets and mortar rounds at Israel following Olmert's announcement, wounding at least one person, the army said.
The military confirmed troop withdrawals had begun after witnesses saw Israeli tanks and troops pull back from key positions in and around Gaza City toward the border fence which surrounds the impoverished territory.
Olmert announced late Saturday that he had ordered an end to offensive operations in Gaza after 22 days of combat but that troops would remain and fire back if attacked.
After the ceasefire came into effect at 2:00 am (0000 GMT), Gaza enjoyed its first bomb-free night in more than three weeks, but there were soon signs that the calm may unravel.
As militants fired rockets and Israel launched retaliatory air strikes, troops shot dead an eight-year-old girl in the northern town of Beit Hanun and a 20-year-old man near Khan Yunis in the south, medics said.
Gaza medics took advantage of the halt in the fighting to rush to areas which had been inaccessible, pulling at least 95 bodies from the rubble, including those of several children.
The discoveries brought the overall death toll since Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on December 27 to more than 1,300, medics said, making it by far the deadliest Israeli offensive ever launched on the Gaza Strip.
On the ground, as Hamas congratulated the Palestinians s on "victory" from mosque loudspeakers, Gaza residents cautiously ventured out onto the streets.
"Everything has been completely destroyed," said Yahia Karin, 54, in Zeitun, a Gaza City neighbourhood ravaged by furious battles between Israeli ground troops and Hamas militants.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas repeated his call for a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the reopening of the enclave's border crossings, saying Israel's truce was "important and necessary but insufficient."
Israel and Egypt have sealed Gaza off from all but vital humanitarian aid since Hamas seized power there in June 2007.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev, meanwhile, stressed that the Jewish state was not a partner to any agreement with Hamas, a group which is sworn to the Jewish state's destruction.
"If Hamas does not attack Israel and does not provoke Israel, we will honour the ceasefire," he said.
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