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Israeli army says Gaza pullout complete

Israeli troops completed on Wednesday their withdrawal from the Gaza Strip after a 22-day offensive against the Islamist Hamas movement, an army spokesman.

world Updated: Jan 21, 2009 18:01 IST

Israeli troops completed on Wednesday their withdrawal from the Gaza Strip after a 22-day offensive against the Islamist Hamas movement, an army spokesman told AFP.

"The last soldier left the Gaza Strip this morning," the spokesman said. "However the army remains deployed all around the Gaza Strip to meet any eventuality."

The pullout began on Sunday after Israel declared a ceasefire and Palestinians militants matched it. Hamas gave Israel a week to remove all troops and open crossing points into Gaza or face renewed hostilities.

The Israel Defence Forces later issued a statement saying the troops had returned to Israeli territory, ending Operation Cast Lead.

"The forces are now redeployed outside the Gaza Strip," it said.

Israel launched its massive assault on December 27, bombarding the narrow coastal strip where 1.5 million Palestinians live from land, air and sea.

The army conditioned a full withdrawal on a halt to rocket attacks on southern Israel by Palestinian militants, which sparked the invasion.

The ceasefire held firm, but the army did not complete the withdrawal before the inauguration of US President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday as many commentators expected.

Palestinian health ministry figures list more than 1,300 people dead, including 410 children and about 100 women. Another 5,300 people were wounded -- 1,855 of them children and 795 women.

The Palestinian bureau of statistics reported 4,100 homes totally destroyed and 17,000 others damaged in the offensive.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon became Tuesday the first world leader to visit the enclave since Israel halted the deadliest offensive it has ever launched on the Palestinian territory, which has been ruled by Hamas since June 2007.

He accused Israel of using "excessive force" in the conflict, but he also condemned Palestinian rocket fire on southern Israel, which sparked the invasion.

Eight Israeli human rights groups who accused the army of ignoring the rules of war. They urged prosecutor general and government legal adviser Menachem Mazuz to act, describing the scale of casualties among women and children as "terrifying." In Washington, President Barack Obama plans this week to name former Northern Ireland peacemaker George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy to deal immediately with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, The Washington Post reported.

And the US Senate was expected to vote Wednesday on Hillary Clinton's nomination as secretary of state, a post she intends to use to make a new push for Middle East peace. The changes in Washington are closely monitored in Israel where elections are set for February 10.

The liberal daily Haaretz warned in an editorial Wednesday that although Obama did not mention Israel directly in his inaugural address a clear message went out.

"Precisely at a time when Israel is drunk on power after Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, it should listen to Obama's sober words: 'Our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.'

"The new president intends to speak with states such as Iran and Syria," it noted. "The new government in Jerusalem after elections will be judged ... on its success in building not destroying.

"Israel should internalise Obama's call for restraint as an attribute of security as well as his approach that favours dialogue and seeking paths towards understanding with yesterday's enemies."