Deadly rocket attack mars Ashton Gaza visit

EU foreign policy chief condemns violence on visit to scenes of siege destruction
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The Independent Online

An immigrant Thai farm worker was killed in Israel yesterday by a rocket fired from Gaza as the EU's foreign policy chief, Baroness Ashton, made a rare high-profile visit to the territory.

Baroness Ashton's trip was her first to the region as the EU's High Representative, and unusual for such a top European official. She had been in Gaza for about an hour when the rocket was launched.

An extreme group said to be inspired by al-Qa'ida claimed responsibility for the attack, which tore through the plastic roof of a greenhouse in Moshav Netiv HaAsara, close to northern Gaza's border, and killed the man, aged about 30. The Qassam missile was the first to have claimed a life since the three-week Israeli military offensive in Gaza in the winter of 2008-09.

Baroness Ashton said she was "extremely shocked" by the attack. "I condemn any violence," she said. "We have got to find a peaceful solution to the issues and problems... We have to move forward."

Silvan Shalom, the Israeli deputy Prime Minister, said after the attack: "This is a crossing of the red line which Israel cannot accept. The Israeli response will be appropriate. It will be strong."

During her three-hour visit, Baroness Ashton toured the far-northern Abed Rabbo, where some of the worst destruction occurred during the offensive, and visited UN facilities, a school for deaf children, and had lunch with a small group of prominent civil-society leaders. Baroness Ashton did not meet Hamas. But the contradictions of the international boycott of the faction, which maintains internal security in Gaza, were evident as its police blocked streets to allow her convoy through, while keeping out of sight as she made her visits.

The former British minister flew to Moscow last night to join the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, for a meeting of the US-UN-Russia-EU Quartet on the Middle East.

Only two foreign ministers of EU member states have visited Gaza in the past year. Baroness Ashton was repeatedly urged to help end the two-and-a-half-year siege of Gaza, which was imposed after Hamas took full control of the strip by force in June 2007. John Ging, UNRWA's Gaza director of operations, said he was "very pleased" Baroness Ashton had come to Gaza.

The claim of responsibility for yesterday's rocket was made by an Islamist faction that calls itself Ansar al-Sunna, believed to be one of several hardline and splinter groups who chafe at the ceasefire and apparently regard the Hamas de facto government as too moderate. But the Israeli Deputy Defence Minister, Matan Vilnai, said Israel held Hamas responsible for any cross-border attacks because the group controlled the Gaza Strip.

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