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Middle East

Middle East envoy Tony Blair in Gaza for first time

Middle East envoy Tony Blair visited the Gaza Strip today, his first such trip to the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory since being appointed two years ago.

"I wanted to come to hear for myself, first hand, from people in Gaza whose lives have been so badly impacted by the recent conflict," Blair said in a statement.

Aides said Blair would discuss with business and civil leaders efforts to repair damage from Israel's January offensive. Reconstruction will also be the focus of an international donor conference in Egypt on Monday.

"I will relay their account of events, their assessment of what is needed for reconstruction, their goals for rebuilding a vibrant private sector and civil society, to this week's conference in Sharm El Sheikh," Blair said in the statement.

A spokeswoman for the former British prime minister said he had no plans to meet Hamas officials during the visit, scheduled to last several hours and to be followed by a tour of Sderot, an Israeli town hit frequently by rockets from the Gaza Strip.

The West shuns Hamas over its refusal to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept existing interim Israeli-Palestinian peace deals.

Blair serves as an envoy of the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators - the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. He has been given the task of spearheading efforts to strengthen the Palestinian economy as well as pushing for peace.