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Hamas answers Israeli truce with a conditional cease-fire

HAMAS said yesterday that it will cease fire immediately along with other militant groups in the Gaza Strip and give Israel, which already declared a unilateral truce, a week to pull its troops out of the territory.

A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in response: "We'll play this day by day. We'll see how this goes. We want to leave Gaza. We'll do so as soon as we can."

Ayman Taha, a Hamas official in Cairo for talks with Egypt on the conflict, said the group and other factions were announcing a Gaza cease-fire "starting immediately," and Israel, which launched its offensive on December 27, had a week to withdraw.

Hamas, he said, was demanding the opening of all Gaza border crossings for the entry of "all materials, food, goods and basic needs."

The Islamist group said previously it would not stop its attacks as long as Israeli soldiers remained in the Gaza Strip.

During the 22-day-long offensive, Israeli attacks killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, including some 700 civilians, Gaza medical officials said. Israel said hundreds of gunmen were among the dead.

Ten Israeli soldiers were killed as well as three Israeli civilians hit by rockets.

Some 17 rockets hit southern Israel after the cease-fire Olmert declared went into effect at 2am.

Israel responded with two air strikes against launching sites, and medical workers in Gaza said a Palestinian civilian was killed.

At least one rocket struck southern Israel shortly after Hamas said it was halting attacks.

A statement issued by Hamas in Syria, which also announced the week-long cease-fire, said Palestinian factions were willing to respond to efforts by Egypt and others to broker an agreement for the "final lifting" of Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Israel tightened the blockade, deepening hardship in the Gaza Strip, after Hamas seized the territory from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007. Egypt has largely kept its Rafah crossing with the enclave closed.

"If this cease-fire holds, and I hope it does, you'll see the crossings open to an enormous amount of humanitarian support," Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said in an interview with Britain's Sky News.

In the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, the leaders of Britain, the Czech Republic, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Spain and Turkey, along with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, met to coordinate policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

They gathered to back Egyptian efforts to turn a shaky cease-fire into a solid mutual agreement leading to Israeli withdrawal.

The civilian death toll and destruction in the Gaza Strip brought strong international pressure on Israel to stop the offensive it launched with the declared aim of ending rocket attacks that had killed 18 people over the previous eight years.


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