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Gaza truce begins, Israeli army pulls out

india Updated: Nov 26, 2006 13:38 IST

A ceasefire began in the Gaza Strip on Sunday, heralding a possible end to Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel and a halt to a crushing Israeli military offensive.

The Israeli army said it had withdrawn its forces from Gaza overnight, before the truce took effect. Palestinian witnesses confirmed troops had left northern Gaza, where operations against rocket-launching squads had been concentrated in recent weeks.

The effective restoration of a ceasefire agreed last year could pave the way for a long-awaited summit between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on ways to restart peacemaking.

Hamas said its armed wing fired three rockets at Israel just before the ceasefire began. The missiles damaged a building but caused no injuries, the Israeli army said.

Shortly after the truce went into effect, there were no reports of additional rocket firings.

Hamas, the Islamist group whose rise to power in the Palestinian territories drew a Western aid boycott that has deepened economic hardship, was instrumental in persuading militant groups to agree to hold their fire.

"President Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh agreed with all factions and resistance groups on calm, including the stopping of rocket fire, starting from 6 a.m. (0400 GMT) on Sunday," Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said.

Abbas, who has long sought a cessation of the now-daily rocket strikes, informed Olmert of the dramatic development in a telephone call late on Saturday following a meeting between the president and Haniyeh, a Hamas leader.

"Abbas told the prime minister that all the Palestinian factions are committed to the agreement," said Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin.

"Abbas asked in response that Israel stop all military operations in the Gaza Strip and withdraw all the forces," she said.

"The prime minister ... told Abbas that Israel would respond favourably, as Israel was operating in the Gaza Strip in response to the violence. With the end of violence, Israel would be happy to withdraw its troops."

Israel, which completed a pullout of troops and settlers from Gaza in September 2005, threatened last week to step up the military offensive it began in the territory in June after militants on a cross-border raid abducted an Israeli soldier.

Stability

More than 400 Palestinians, about half of them militants, have been killed in the Israeli strikes, Palestinian hospital officials and residents say. Three Israeli soldiers and two civilians have been killed since the offensive began.

"(Olmert) expressed his hope that the end of violence would bring stability to both sides," Eisin said.

"The two agreed to continue the dialogue ... and agree to talk again soon (on) the ideas and steps toward ending the violence, also in the West Bank," she said.

Several militant groups met on Saturday with Haniyeh and agreed to halt attacks from Gaza if Israel ceased its military activities there

The agreement could help Haniyeh and Abbas finalize talks on forming a unity government of technocrats that Palestinians hope can lead to the lifting of Western sanctions imposed after Hamas came to power in March after winning a January election.

An end to rocket attacks on southern Israel could also ease political pressure on Olmert at home, where his popularity has flagged after a war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon last summer that ended inconclusively.

In violence on Saturday, an Israeli aircraft attacked a car carrying Hamas militants in Gaza City, killing one of the men and wounding four, the movement said. The Israeli military said the Hamas squad was involved in weapons production.

A Hamas militant and a policeman also were killed in Israeli tank shelling near Gaza City, ambulance workers said.

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