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Thursday, 13 February, 2003, 10:59 GMT
Israel launches deadly Gaza raid
Children look at the wreckage of a car
The incursion caused widespread damage
Israeli forces have killed 12 Palestinians and wounded more than 50 in what is believed to be their biggest incursion into Gaza City since the Palestinian uprising began more than two years ago.

Palestinians sources say some 50 tanks and armoured vehicles backed by helicopter gunships entered the city from three directions, in the second Israeli incursion in the past 24 hours.

Israel's Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz told Israel radio that the government in the past had considered simply taking over the Gaza Strip, and that this was still under consideration.

He said the raid, which ended at daybreak, was aimed at sites where Palestinians made and launched rockets at Israel after a recent increase in such attacks.

Most of the Palestinian dead appear to be men in their twenties. The militant group Hamas has already vowed revenge.

Palestinian official Saeb Erakat accused Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of using military force to try to keep himself and his Likud party in power in Tuesday's general elections.

"Prime Minister Sharon is determined to end his election campaign with more Palestinian blood and with more destruction and with more aggression and escalation," the minister said.

The BBC's Liz Blunt in Jerusalem says the Gaza incursion was a major show of strength which should go down well with voters but for Israel to put a permanent presence into Gaza would be a major, and potentially a very costly undertaking.

Resistance urged

The troops reportedly stormed several buildings, destroying at least three metal workshops, as mosques called on Palestinians to resist the incursion.

Israeli military sources said their troops came under heavy fire from Palestinians with assault rifles, anti-tank missiles and explosives.

Emergency worker accompanies an injured man
More than 50 people were injured overnight
The sources said the Israeli troops returned fire, hitting a number of armed Palestinians.

Shootings could be heard in the city centre near the central Palestine Square, with helicopters hovering in the sky.

Correspondents say that the area is a known stronghold of the group Hamas, which does not recognise Israel's right to exist and has carried out dozens of attacks to pressure Mr Sharon's government into a complete withdrawal from the Palestinian territories.

It remains unclear whether those who were killed are civilians or suspected militants.

Rocket attacks

It is the third successive night that the Israeli army has been in action in Gaza Strip.

The Israeli defence minister said on Friday a series of operations would be launched to end rocket strikes from the region, which earlier in the week left three Israeli soldiers dead.

Despite the incursion, another Qassam rocket was reportedly fired from northern Gaza on Sunday.

The flare-up in violence comes just days before Israelis vote in an election that Mr Sharon seems certain to win.

Mr Sharon is running for re-election on a platform of no negotiations with the Palestinians while militant attacks continue and tough military reprisals.

He is currently predicted to defeat the new leader of the Labour Party, Amram Mitzna, who has pledged to withdraw from the Gaza Strip within a year.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's James Rodgers
"This was a major show of strength by the Israeli army"
The BBC's James Reynolds
"The Israeli defence minister...has been saying that Israel is contemplating taking over the Gaza strip"

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