Gaza in flames as Israelis launch ground offensive

ISRAEL invaded Gaza last night in a dramatic escalation of the bloody week-long war that has already cost more than 400 lives.

Ignoring international calls for restraint, tanks and troops, backed by helicopter gunships, entered the Palestinian territory under the cover of darkness amid reports of fierce resistance.

Explosions and flames lit up the night as ground forces moved in on four fronts in the north, south and centre of the Gaza Strip.

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Under bright white light from parachute flares, weapons-laden troops, poured through the perimeter fence around the Strip while attack helicopters flew overhead. The sound of gunbattles could be clearly heard.

Prior to the assault, Israel had turned off the power in the attack zones, plunging them into darkness to reduce the effectiveness of the Palestinian militants manning defences.

The ground offensive forced the United Nations Security Council to hold emergency consultations late last night after criticism that it was not taking any action over the Israeli attack on Gaza. In a strong condemnatory statement, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on the Israeli government to end the ground incursion and urged regional and international partners to "exert all possible influence to bring about an immediate end to the bloodshed and suffering".

Reports from Israel last night suggested at least 30 Hamas fighters had been killed in opening clashes. Hamas, however, almost immediately claimed to have killed an unspecified number of Israeli solders.

Earlier, Israeli jets and artillery had pounded the defensive positions of Hamas, the radical group which controls the territory, killing at least 11 people in an attack on a mosque.

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had also concentrated an intense attack with missiles and shells from tanks, cannons, aircraft and warships shortly before dusk, the end of the Jewish Sabbath, on the no-man's-land between Gaza City proper and the Israeli frontier, which was designed to destroy mines, roadside bombs and booby traps set by Hamas before troops moved in.

Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, had earlier ordered the mobilisation of "tens of thousands" of reservists in a signal that the country is bracing itself for a major military operation. After the ground offensive began, defence minister Ehud Barak said: "The campaign won't be easy and it won't be short. We do not seek war but we will not abandon our citizens to the ongoing Hamas (missile] attacks."

Officials at the IDF last night said their objective was to take control of areas in Gaza used by Hamas to launch rockets at Jewish settlements.

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Senior Israeli figures made it clear the invasion was not a minor operation. Brigadier Avi Benayahu, said: "This won't be a school outing. We are talking about many long days."

Defiant officials from Hamas made it clear they were up for a fight. The group, in one message, said Gaza would turn into a "graveyard for Israeli solders". In another, broadcast immediately after the invasion, it told the Israelis: "Gaza will not be paved with flowers for you, it will be paved with fire and hell."

The group's leader, Khaled Mashaal, exiled in Damascus, Syria, had earlier told Al-Jazeera TV: "To Israeli soldiers I say: a black fate awaits you if you invade Gaza. We're sure of our victory, as we've prepared a better battle, and as Allah is on our side."

The IDF stressed it was playing tough too. A spokesman warned any Gazan found hiding "terrorists" or weapons would be treated as a terrorist.

The intensification of fighting came after US President George Bush refused to condemn Israel's actions in Gaza and in spite of a day of action that saw tens of thousands across the world protest against the war.

Israeli jets have carried out wave after wave of air strikes on Gaza over the past week. Yesterday, the Palestinian authorities said at least another 11 people had died in an explosion at a mosque in the Gazan town of Beit Lahiya. Four children were said to be among the dead.

The mosque blast brought the total Palestinian death toll to at least 446. A quarter of the dead are said to be civilians.

Israeli jets yesterday also killed a Hamas leader, targeted the group's central intelligence HQ and attacked Gaza's American International School.

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Israel said it was determined to stop the rockets fired by Hamas from Gaza into towns and cities in its south.

Foreign minister Tzipi Livni said: "I hope the results of this operation will bring about quiet in the long term. The moment they fire, we will respond with great force. It could be that several operations will be needed in this regard."

Israeli officials, meanwhile, said the number of missiles fired by Hamas had fallen in recent days, from 100 a day last week to about 60 yesterday. Two Israeli civilians were hurt last night after rockets struck a house, a cafe and a playground in Ashdod.

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