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U.N. Chief Condemns Israeli Strike On Relief Agency

David Gilkey/NPR
Israelis in southern Israel look out at a plume of smoke rising from Gaza City on Thursday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has strongly condemned Thursday's shelling of a United Nations compound in Gaza, again calling for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and saying the death toll has reached an "unbearable point."

About 700 Palestinians refugees were staying at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency when it was hit Thursday by Israeli artillery shells, U.N. officials said. The attack caused a fire that destroyed hundreds of pounds of food for the refugees. At least three people were wounded, said U.N. spokesman Chris Gunness.

Ban, who was in the region to push for a cease-fire, said he was outraged by the attack and demanded an investigation.

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"I conveyed my strong protest and outrage to the defense minister and foreign minister and demanded a full explanation," Ban said. He said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told him there had been a "grave mistake" and promised to try to protect U.N. installations.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the Israeli military shelled the compound in Gaza after being fired on by Palestinian militants.

"It is absolutely true that we were attacked from that place," Olmert said. "But the consequences were very sad and I apologize for it."

A U.N. official dismissed the allegation as "nonsense." The U.N. agency put vehicle movements on hold after the incident, but did not suspend aid operations, Gunness said.

As fighting continued, Hamas Interior Minister Said Siam was killed in an Israeli airstrike, Hamas and Israeli officials confirmed. Siam was among Hamas' top Gaza leaders.

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The humanitarian aid group CARE International said it stopped distributing emergency food and medical supplies in the Gaza Strip, however, after Israeli forces bombed areas near its warehouses.

More than 1,000 Palestinians and 13 Israelis have been killed in 20 days of fighting in the Gaza Strip, U.N. and Gaza medical officials said. The Israeli military launched the operation Dec. 27 in an effort to stop Hamas from launching rockets into Israel from Gaza.

Shells also hit two hospitals and a building housing several media outlets in Gaza City. The Foreign Press Association condemned the attack, as well as Israel's continued refusal to permit journalists to enter Gaza.

Even as the Israeli military intensified its air and ground assault, Israeli envoy Amos Gilad traveled to Cairo to discuss truce prospects with Egypt, which has been serving as the key mediator. Israel also sent a senior diplomat to Washington to discuss international guarantees that Hamas will not rearm.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said there was some momentum in the negotiations, and Israeli officials were hopeful a deal could be reached soon.

From NPR staff and wire reports

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