UN demands immediate ceasefire in Gaza Strip

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The United Nations last night backed a milestone resolution calling for an end to military action by all sides in the Gaza Strip.

The British-led United Nations resolution calling for an "immediate and durable" ceasefire was backed by 14 out of 15 members of the security council. The United States abstained.

The UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the UN had "served its purpose" after the vote, and urged the international community to "turns the words into changes on the ground".

The US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said America supported the "objectives" of the resolution, but the US abstained from the security council vote because it "thought it important to see the outcomes of the Egyptian mediation" with Israel and Hamas.

As the vote was taking place, dozens more attacks occurred in Gaza with unconfirmed reports of a bomb flattening a five-storey apartment block in the northern part of the territory.

UN officials earlier confirmed that an agreement had been reached on the wording of a ceasefire text after hours of marathon negotiations on the sidelines of the Security Council meeting between the foreign ministers of Britain, France and the US on the one hand and their counterparts from several Arab nations on the other.

The resolution "stresses the urgency of and calls for an immediate, durable and fully respected cease-fire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza."

Mr Miliband said: "It is not every day that the United Nations speaks loudly and clearly and across all the nations in the UN about the Middle East."

Only one day before, the council had seemed to be on a path to humiliating failure, when the US publicly threatened to veto a ceasefire text that had been presented by Libya, which currently holds one of the non-permanent seats. It declared itself ready only to back a far less muscled "presidential statement" that expressed dismay with the fighting.

Even Britain was reportedly taken by surprise when late in the evening on Wednesday, the US delegation, headed by the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, changed tack and said it would support a ceasefire resolution, if not the Libyan one.

It was then Britain's task to craft a new version that eventually attracted consensus support last night.

How quickly the resolution will impact events on the ground is a different matter, of course. The Israeli offensive against Gaza militants continued unabated yesterday despite intensive discussions in Cairo on an outline peace plan.

The Israeli military said it had attacked 25 targets, including Hamas weapons stores, rocket-launching sites and a junction that had been rigged with explosives to blow up advancing troops. Earlier, it had also hit three Islamic Jihad militants involved in launching rockets on Israel. The army said another Israeli soldier had been killed yesterday in Gaza, bringing the total military casualties to eight in the current offensive.

Meanwhile, at least three Katyusha rockets were fired into northern Israel from southern Lebanon, injuring six Israelis. It appeared to be an isolated attack, for which both Hizbollah and Hamas disclaimed any responsibility. Israeli troops responded with artillery fire. Israeli security forces heightened their alert and ordered Israelis into bomb shelters along the northern border area.

Mr Miliband expressed the hope that the resolution would be heeded and would help speed the negotiation of its practicalities in Cairo. Sending a clear message to Israel and to Hamas, he said: "The UN can pass resolutions, but it is the decisions of the people on the ground that can make the difference between peace and war".

There had been deep concern in London and in other European capitals that a different outcome in New York and specifically a result that involved the US vetoing a ceasefire resolution would have inflamed passions across the Middle East, where Arabs continue to resent American support for Israel.

Sources in New York reported that as Ms Rice shuttled in and out of negotiating sessions yesterday, she phoned the Israeli Prime Minster, Ehud Olmert, at least five times to keep him up to date.

It was thought that she and Washington were simultaneously coming under intense pressure from Arab allies to support a ceasefire text.