Israeli tank shells 'kill 18 Palestinians in sleep'

Israeli tank shells ripped through a residential neighbourhood in the northern Gaza Strip early today, killing at least 18 members of an extended family, including 10 children, as they slept, health officials said.

Palestinian leaders condemned the attack and called for international intervention.

Militants vowed revenge, and the military wing of the Palestinians' ruling Hamas group called on Muslims around the world to attack US targets.

Israel halted artillery attacks in Gaza while it investigating the incident, but said it would press forward with operations meant to halt Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli communities.

The tank shells landed around a compound of four apartment buildings in Beit Hanoun, the northern border town that has been the latest focus of the Israeli offensive. Gaping holes were torn into the structures, owned by four brothers from the al-Athamna family who lived side by side. A large pool of blood collected in front of the houses, and stairs in an outside stairway were covered with blood.

Asma al-Athamna, 14, said her family was woken by the sound of an explosion. Her mother quickly ordered everyone out of the house.

As the family left their home, another shell landed, killing the girl's mother, older sister and brother-in-law. "They were killed when they came out of our house into the corridor. A tank shell killed them. I was behind them and I was wounded," said the weeping girl, speaking from her hospital bed.

Parts of dismembered bodies were plastered to walls of the damaged building and lying on the ground. A woman's headscarf, children's boots and slippers, and a pair of jeans - all burnt - were strewn outside the houses.

Khaled Radi, a health ministry official, said all the dead belonged to the al-Afaneh family. More than 50 people were wounded, 14 of them seriously, Radi said.

A military spokeswoman said artillery rounds were fired at Palestinian rocket-launching sites, but far from the apartment compound. Defence Minister Amir Peretz ordered a halt to Israeli artillery fire in the area pending an investigation.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of the Palestinians' ruling Hamas militant group, suspended talks on forming a more moderate government with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and both men declared a three-day mourning period.

Abbas warned that Israel would have to "shoulder all the consequences for these crimes," ed tires in protest.

Witnesses said dozens of schoolchildren hurled stones and bottles at the empty EU mission in Gaza City, and that Palestinian security officials were trying to prevent them from storming the building.

Haniyeh declared a three-day mourning period throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip and urged the UN Security Council to discuss the shelling incident.

"We have the right to self defence," he added. He did not elaborate, and it was not clear whether he was threatening to resume suicide bombings. Hamas has carried out dozens of suicide attacks over the past decade, killing dozens of Israel, but not in recent years.

Abbas accused Israel of trying to destroy peace, not promote it.

"This is no doubt a terrible, despicable crime that Israel has committed against our people," he told Palestine TV. "We tell the Israelis, you are not seeking peace at all, but are destroying all chances for peace. You must therefore bear all the consequences of these crimes."

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Israel "has no intention of harming innocent people," but "to our great regret, in the course of the fighting, regrettable things sometimes happen, such as the incident this morning."

The bloodshed in Beit Hanoun followed a week-long Israeli takeover of the town in pursuit of militants who launch rockets at southern Israel. More than 50 Palestinians, most of them militants, were killed in that operation and in clashes after the Israeli troops withdrew early yesterday.

A government spokeswoman said Israel would continue its offensive throughout the Gaza Strip, despite the deadly shelling.

"The Israeli operation throughout the Gaza Strip will continue as long as Qassam rockets land in Israel, as long as the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip continues and as long as the Hamas government chooses for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to continuously provoke Israel," spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

* The UK Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett expressed her "deep concern" over today's Israeli strike on the Gaza strip.

Mrs Beckett said she was "gravely disturbed" by the civilian deaths, which included women and children, and it was "hard to see" how the action in the town of Beit Hanoun could be justified.

She said: "I extend my condolences to the families of those killed and the injured.

"The British Government has repeatedly expressed its deep concern over mounting casualties and civilian suffering in Gaza in recent months, and raised these concerns with the government of Israel.

"Israel must respect its obligation to avoid harming civilians. It is hard to see what this action was meant to achieve and how it can be justified.

"Continuing rocket attacks by Palestinian militants are also unacceptable. I call on all sides to meet their obligations under international humanitarian law and to do their utmost to avoid harming civilians, especially children."

Israeli tank shells are reported to have crashed into a residential suburb of Beit Hanoun in the early hours this morning.

Reports have put the number of dead at 18 - including 10 children - but a Foreign Office spokesman said their representatives on the ground believed it was at least 22 with many others injured.

Israel has ordered a halt to artillery attacks while the incident is investigated.

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