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Monday, 18 March, 2002, 22:29 GMT
Annan denounces Israel's offensive
Israeli troops in Ramallah
Annan demanded that Israel respect humanitarian law
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By the BBC's Michael Voss
at the United Nations in New York

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has condemned Israel's offensive in the West Bank and Gaza as tantamount to all-out war.

Hundreds of innocent non-combatant civilians - men, women and children - have been injured or killed

Kofi Annan
In a strongly-worded letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Mr Annan said "hundreds of innocent non-combatant civilians - men, women and children - have been injured or killed, and many buildings and homes have been damaged or destroyed".

Mr Annan has become increasingly frustrated and distressed at the escalation of violence in Israel.

Last week, for the first time, the secretary general described the Israeli occupation of Arab lands as "illegal" - his strongest public statement to date on the 18-month-old Palestinian uprising.

Now the BBC has obtained a copy of a letter sent by Mr Annan to Mr Sharon.

'Disturbing patterns'

Dated 12 March, the letter speaks of the "disturbing patterns" in the treatment of civilians and humanitarian relief workers by the Israeli Defence Forces.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan
The secretary general has been increasingly outspoken against Israel

Mr Annan goes on to say that "judging by the means employed, such as F-16 fighter bombers, helicopter and naval gunships, missiles and bombs, the fighting has come to resemble all-out conventional warfare".

Israel is fully entitled to defend itself against terror, Mr Annan writes, but this right does not discharge it from its obligation to respect fundamental principles and rules on international humanitarian law.

Mr Annan also expressed dismay at Israel's failure to protect and respect ambulances and medical personnel.

Israeli claims that ambulances were being used to smuggle militants and weapons are described by Kofi Annan as "unfounded and unsubstantiated".

The BBC's Barbara Plett
"Yasser Arafat has survived Israeli attempts to marginalise him"
US Vice-President Dick Cheney
"We continue to call upon Chairman Arafat... to renounce... violence"
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat
"We have not been approached for a meeting"
See also:

12 Mar 02 | Middle East
Annan appeal brings mixed response
12 Mar 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Israel goes in hard
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