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OPT: Israel imposes blockade on Gaza Strip as tensions rise

Tel Aviv_(dpa) _ Israel has imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip in order to pressure militant groups to release a soldier held captive in the coastal salient, an army spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday.

All crossings into the strip had been closed and no goods, including food and medicine, would be allowed in until further notice, she told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

The siege was also enforced via the sea, with no fishing boats allowed out, she said, adding that it had been in place since Palestinian militants raided a military outpost bordering the Gaza Strip early Sunday, killing two soldiers and abducting 19-year-old corporal Gilad Shalit.

The raid has triggered fears of a serious escalation of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

More Israeli troops were on their way to the Gaza border, an army spokeswoman said, joining other reinforcements who arrived Monday and were waiting for orders for a possible military offensive.

Militants in Gaza were also making preparations to resist the Israelis, piling up sand heaps at the entrances to the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, Beit Hanoun and Jabaliya.

Frantic international mediation efforts meanwhile were underway to avoid the feared escalation.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas telephoned Arab leaders, including Yemenite President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Lybian leader Moamer Ghadafi Tuesday, the Palestinian Wafa news agency reported. He is believed to have urged them to exert their influence over Syria and press Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal to order Hamas' armed wing to free the soldier.

According to some reports, Mashaal, who is considered to belong to the more radical streams within Hamas, masterminded Sunday's raid. United States Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones appeared to endorse the allegation when he said Tuesday in remarks broadcast on Army Radio that "It seems the problem is in Damascus and that's where we should focus the world's attention."

Abbas had earlier also called Syrian President Bashar Assad himself, as well as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Monday.

A spokesman for Abbas' Fatah party also repeated calls issued earlier by senior leaders of the movement calling for the soldier to be freed.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas, meanwhile, made his own phonecalls to world leaders, including to Pope Benedict XVI, urging them to issue calls for a peaceful solution and against a major Israeli military operation, his spokesman Ghazi Hamad said.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan urged "all parties to exercise restraint at this grave moment and to take all possible steps to avoid further escalation and bloodshed."

U.S. State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack issued a similar call, with both men also demanding the soldier's "immediate release."

An Israeli government official, meanwhile, denied the existence of a 48-hour deadline after which Israeli forces would enter the strip.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office also denied reports that Israel would cut off the electricity and water supplies to the strip.

Israel Army Radio reported that Egyptian mediators had informed the soldier's family that he was wounded in the stomach and had a broken arm, but that his condition was not serious.

A senior Israeli officer, meanwhile, told a parliamentary committee dealing with security Tuesday that the army knew that the soldier was being held in a refugee camp in the area of Rafah in the south of Gaza, Israel Radio reported.

The kidnappers had prepared their raid for more than two months, he also said.

Olmert earlier reiterated vows that Israel would conduct no negotiations with the kidnappers.

"The question of releasing prisoners is not even on the government's agenda," he told a conference of Jewish leaders Monday night, responding to demands made in a leaflet issued by the three militant groups that claimed responsibility for Sunday's raid.

The groups - the armed wing of the governing Hamas movement, the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) and the Islamic Army - demanded the release of all Palestinian women and minors held in Israeli prisons.

A spokeswoman for the Israel Prisons Authority said 313 Palestinians aged under 18 and 109 Palestinian women were jailed in Israel. Some 64 per cent of the women had "blood on their hands", she told dpa, adding the women included also several would-be suicide bombers. dpa ok tn mm tl wjh jab

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