Israel launches airstrikes in Gaza

(dpa) - Israel launched another airstrike in northern Gaza before dawn Friday, continuing an intense air campaign in the Strip that has since mid-week killed some 29 Palestinians in response to a barrage of rockets at its southern communities.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said the target was a rocket-production site. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Since Wednesday morning, the Israel Air Force launched some 22 attacks, she said, in response to at least 116 rockets unleashed at the town of Sderot, the coastal city of Ashqelon and other Israeli communities near the Strip.

Israeli soldiers shot dead three gunmen during arrest raids in the northern West Bank city of Nablus Wednesday and Thursday, bringing the total death toll to 32.

Gaza emergency services chief Mo'aweya Hassanein said the deaths included eight children, the youngest a 5-month-old boy.

A 47-year-old Israeli civilian was also killed Wednesday when a rocket exploded less than a metre from his parked car at the entrance to Sapir college on Sderot's outskirts.

The latest escalation came after an Israeli strike on a van with Hamas fighters in southern Gaza Wednesday morning, who retaliated with rocket attacks from Gaza.

The flare-up strengthened fears of a large-scale Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. Israeli media reported that the military had completed preparations for an offensive, with dozens of tanks deployed at a gathering point north of Gaza.

But the Israeli military spokeswoman said "we don't know anything about something like that."

Israel Radio quoted a senior government official Friday morning as saying Israel had no intention of launching the large-scale offensive for the time being, and instead would continue combating the rocket launchers "according to the current format" of intense airstrikes and brief, limited ground incursions.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert returned from a four-day trip to Japan early Friday and was due to hold urgent consultations with defence officials.

Israel said it regarded the firing of several longer-range Russian-made Grad rockets at Ashqelon, a city of more than 100,000 inhabitant about 15 kilometres north of the Strip - and until recently out of reach of projectiles fired from Gaza - a "real escalation."

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak for the first time ordered the installation of an air siren alarm system in the city, similar to the one that has been operating in the hardest-hit town of Sderot, codenamed "Colour Red."

Olmert is scheduled to discuss the Gaza quagmire with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who are to visit Israel and the Palestinian areas next week.

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