'We have faced many similar situations but today was the worst'

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Distraught relatives besieged the main hospital in Rafah last night in search of children and other family members injured when Israeli forces fired on a demonstration, killing at least 10 people, in the southern Gaza Strip yesterday.

Distraught relatives besieged the main hospital in Rafah last night in search of children and other family members injured when Israeli forces fired on a demonstration, killing at least 10 people, in the southern Gaza Strip yesterday.

Hospital officials said more than 50 were injured, including 13 people in critical condition, and many with multiple trauma injuries. Palestinian witnesses said half of the dead were children or teenagers and that several tank shells were fired and at least one helicopter missile.

Israel faced fresh international criticism after the deaths in what participants uniformly insisted had been a peaceful protest to show solidarity with the residents trapped in the Tel Sultan section of the camp.

The attack began as the head of the march reached ambulances at the edge of the camp, waiting to ferry casualties from inside. Instead, they began a frantic relay, scattering pedestrians as they raced along the Beach Road, ferrying the dead and wounded to the town's overwhelmed hospital.

Several thousand Palestinians had marched from the town of Rafah to the nearby refugee camp, where Israeli troops have been searching houses for weapons and gunmen since Tuesday.

In what the Israeli army claims was an attempt to hold back the crowd with a "warning", a missile was fired from a helicopter gunship while tanks fired several shells.

Associated Press Television News footage showed smoke and debris flying, followed by Palestinians carrying the injured, including several children with bloodstained faces.

"I could see the tank. First it fired a tank shell, it landed next to an electricity pole," said Hisham Ashour, 45, who was near the front of the crowd. "We immediately started picking up the wounded who had collapsed. Many were kids."

The Army appeared to be on the move again last night; shooting, explosions and helicopters flying over head were audible in the deserted and boarded-up streets of the town centre. At least one missile was reported to have been fired at wasteland in the Brazil section of the refugees camp apparently to get residents to flee in advance of a possible incursion there.

Mahdi abu Hassan, 22, his shirt spattered with the blood of a friend Abu Sheikh Eid, who had died in his arms, said he was in the fourth row of the march. He said the protest had been called by mosque loudspeakers.

"We wanted to bring out the injured," he explained. "We wanted to bring back the dead. We were protesting that the people at Tel Sultan have no food and no water. We heard that a man had been beaten with sticks by the Israelis and we were protesting at the destruction of houses."

Mahmoud abu Hashem, 35, said: "There was one person with his intestines coming out. There was a youth whose arm was severed."

Among six of the dead identified last night, four were children, ranging in age from nine to 14. The two others were 17 and 20. Most of the wounded were young people.

The injured were evacuated by ambulance, fire engine, private cars and donkey
carts, witnesses said. Rafah hospital's stairs and floors were drenched in blood as doctors shouted for help and blood donations. Hospital staff treated the wounded on the floors after quickly running out of beds.

Dr Ali Mousa, the hospital director, said: "Until this moment I can't imagine how we dealt with the cases ­ burn cases, cases of people whose insides were exposed, kids screaming and blood everywhere.

"I have been working here since the beginning of the intifada. We have faced many similar situations, but, today was the worst I've ever seen."

Israel's Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, insisted that the army invasion of Rafah was an essential military operation and would "continue for as long as it remains necessary according to the evaluation of the situation and results achieved in the near future". Mr Mofaz told Ha'aretz newspaper that the operation would proceed with caution, and lessons would be learnt from the incident. He said the Israeli government was not being pressured to stop the operation.

Shabtai Gold, a spokesman for Physicians for Human Rights, said the army had prevented ambulances from travelling from nearby Khan Yunis to Rafah.

"We cannot handle the situation, no hospital in the world can handle the situation," said Dr Hassanain. "I got instruction from President [Yasser] Arafat to mobilise all our teams to Rafah immediately and declare a state of emergency all over Gaza Strip hospitals."

Brigadier General Ruth Yaron, an Israeli army spokeswoman, said that as the marchers approached the Rafah camp, a helicopter fired a warning missile at an open area to hold back the crowd. When the crowd continued, she said, machine-gun rounds and four tank shells were fired at an abandoned building on the route of the march. She insisted that "at no point" was fire directed at the protesters.

The army insisted last night that it had not deliberately fired on the demonstrators. Military sources claimed that one of the tank shells had either passed through an abandoned building or went off course and hit the demonstrators.

The army said troops had seen armed men among the approaching demonstrators and had fired a "warning missile" at an open field. When the march continued, the tanks had fired three shells to scare them off.

The protest started after the army called on all men in the camp between the ages of 16 and 60 to assemble in a local school and told armed men to leave their homes waving sheets or white cloth.

Tony Blair condemned the attack on the demonstration as "unacceptable and wrong". Scott McLennan, the White House spokesman said the administration was trying to find out more. "We understand their explanation but we still find the violence troubling," he said.

With the small morgue at Rafah hospital overflowing, bodies were stored in a refrigerated vegetable storeroom near by. Dozens of Palestinians queued up to give blood.

"The least we can give is our blood, we have nothing to offer," said Sami Abu Irmana, aged 19, his blue shirt stained with blood from a shrapnel wound in his shoulder.

Palestinian sources said there were several other casualties from gun battles in the area, but rescue services were having difficulty reaching them due to the gunfire and lack of ambulances.