oPt

OPT: Hamas armed wing breaks truce, gov't seeks calm

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By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA, April 24 (Reuters) - Hamas's armed wing declared an end to a five-month-old Gaza ceasefire on Tuesday by firing rockets into Israel, but the Palestinian government led by the Islamist group called for the shaky truce to be restored.

Hamas's armed wing said it fired the rockets from the Gaza Strip in response to the killing of nine Palestinians over the weekend by Israeli forces.

There was no immediate Israeli government response to the rocket fire, which caused minor damage but no injuries, as the Jewish state celebrated its Independence Day.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah said that the violation of the ceasefire by Hamas was an exception and called on Israel to show restraint.

"The violation of the truce is an exceptional event that will not last," said Abbas at a news conference in Rome. "I take this opportunity to appeal to Israel to show the necessary self-control so that this will not happen again."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will meet with his senior security advisers on Wednesday to consider their options, Israel Radio reported. Army sources told the Haaretz newspaper any Israeli military response would be limited.

"There is no calm between us and the (Israeli) occupation. The occupation ended the calm," Abu Ubaida, spokesman for Hamas's armed wing, the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, said after the group resumed rocket fire for the first time since the November truce took hold.

"There is no coordination between the military (wings) of the Palestinian resistance faction and the government or the authority," Ubaida said in a separate interview with Al Jazeera television.

The Hamas-led Palestinian government later called for the ceasefire to remain in place.

"The government is interested to keep the ceasefire and the calm and we are trying, through consultation and discussion with the Palestinian factions, to take a position in order to protect our people," government spokesman Ghazi Hamad said.

HAMAS DENIES DIVISIONS

Observers say there has been a debate within the Hamas leadership over whether the group has to take a harder line towards Israel, but the Islamist group denies any divisions.

Egypt condemned Israeli forces for killing the nine Palestinians, including five militants. Egypt also called on the Palestinians to refrain from firing rockets into Israel and said that would give the Jewish state "an excuse" to attack.

The United States said Tuesday's rocket attacks were nothing new.

"De facto there hasn't been much of a ceasefire in the past. They have continued to fire Qassam rockets into Israel, so, practically speaking, I ... can't tell you what effect this will have," said U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "

An Israeli army spokesman said at least six rockets were fired at Israel on Tuesday, two of which landed near a southern Israeli town. There were no reports of casualties.

Israeli helicopter gunships opened fire near the border fence in southern Gaza in an attempt to stop the rocket fire.

Hamas, which won a parliamentary election last year, has largely abided by the ceasefire but other groups have continued to shoot makeshift rockets into Israel.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Hamas would reassess its strategy in one to two months if Western sanctions were not lifted on the unity government he formed with Abbas's Fatah faction last month.

It is not clear how a breakdown in the ceasefire might affect Israeli efforts to secure the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Hamas and two other Palestinian militant groups abducted Shalit in a cross-border raid from Gaza last June. Abu Ubaida said Hamas's armed wing will try to capture more Israeli soldiers to force Israel to release Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said on Tuesday Hamas had not kept the ceasefire and had forced Israel to react militarily. Israeli security sources said Hamas has been providing help to other groups carrying out rocket attacks.

"Our worry was that actually they (Hamas) did not keep the ceasefire they promised. There were attempts to penetrate into the country ... and we didn't have a choice but to prevent it," Peres said in a Reuters interview.

Hamas's armed wing said in a statement that it had fired up to 30 rockets and 60 mortar rounds from the Gaza Strip "in reaction to the continued Zionist crimes against our people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip".

Hamas last month claimed responsibility for a Gaza border shooting and mortar shell attacks.

(Additional reporting by Inal Ersan in Dubai)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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