Israel pounds Gaza for second day

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The Independent Online

Israel pounded Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip from the air today for a second day and prepared for a possible invasion of the territory after killing nearly 290 Palestinians in the opening rounds of a powerful offensive.

Israel said the campaign that began yesterday was a response to almost daily rocket and mortar fire that intensified after Hamas, an Islamist group in charge of the coastal enclave Israel quit in 2005, ended a six-month ceasefire a week ago.

Despite the air attacks, militants fired some 80 rockets into Israel, emergency services said. In one of the longest-reaching salvoes, two rockets struck near Ashdod, a main port 18 miles from Gaza, causing no casualties.

Israeli tanks deployed on the edge of the Gaza Strip, poised to enter the densely populated enclave of 1.5 million Palestinians. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet approved a call-up of 6,500 reservists, a government official said.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who hopes to become prime minister after elections next month, appeared to rule out a large-scale invasion aimed at restoring Israeli control of the blockaded territory once dotted with Jewish settlements.

"Our goal is not to reoccupy Gaza Strip," she said on NBC's "Meet the Press" programme. Asked on Fox News if Israel was out to topple Gaza's Hamas rulers, Livni replied: "Not now."

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert, said Israel would press on with the campaign "until we have a new security environment in the south, when the population there will no longer live in terror and in fear of constant rocket barrages".

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum urged Palestinian groups to use "all available means, including martyrdom operations" - a reference to suicide bombings in Israel - to "protect the Palestinian people".

Keeping pressure on Hamas after bombing runs that turned yesterday into one of the bloodiest days for Palestinians in 60 years of conflict, Israeli aircraft flattened the group's main security compound in Gaza, killing at least four security men.

Israel expanded its air campaign to the southern Gaza Strip, bombing some 40 smuggling tunnels running under the border with Egypt, part of a network that is lifeline to the outside world.

Israeli bombs also destroyed Hamas's regional headquarters and medical officials said several people were wounded. A militant was killed in an air strike in the northern Gaza Strip.

The deaths raised to 287 the number of Palestinian dead since yesterday, when Israel launched what one Israeli newspaper columnist described as "shock and awe" air strikes against Hamas facilities. More than 700 Palestinians were wounded.

One Israeli was killed yesterday by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip.