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Page last updated at 22:51 GMT, Thursday, 1 January 2009

Hamas leader killed in air strike

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Firemen tackle a blaze caused by an Israeli rocket

A senior Hamas leader has been killed by an Israeli air strike on his home in the Gaza Strip, Hamas officials say.

Nizar Rayyan, the most senior Hamas figure to be killed since 2004, had urged suicide attacks against Israel.

News of the strike came on the sixth day of Israeli strikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian medical sources say 402 people have been killed. Israel says it is trying to prevent militants from firing rockets into southern Israel.

Mr Rayyan is the most senior Hamas leader to be killed since the death of Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi in April 2004.

Long reach of Israel

Since its bombing campaign began last Saturday, Israel has attacked Hamas fighters and commanders.

Sites linked to Hamas have also been hit, including smuggling tunnels under the border to Egypt, government buildings and security compounds.

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Hamas considered Mr Rayyan to be a political leader, but he often wore a military uniform and was close to the group's armed wing.

Until now, political leaders have not been killed.

The BBC's Mike Sergeant, in Jerusalem, says this may further strengthen the determination of Hamas to resist the Israeli air assault.

But it will also be seen as an indication that the Israeli military can target key members of the Hamas leadership - the people Israel says are responsible for the rockets being fired towards Israeli towns, our correspondent adds.

Four Israelis have been killed by Palestinian rockets fired into Israel since Saturday.

Humanitarian warning

On Wednesday, Mr Rayyan had promised that Hamas would hit Israel "even deeper" than it has so far.

On the Hamas-run al-Aqsa television channel, he said Hamas militants were preparing for any Israeli ground incursion, saying "we will kill the enemy and take hostages".

Palestinian woman in Rafah refugee camp in souther Gaza Strip - 1/1/2009
Israeli planes and helicopters have bombed Gaza for six days

At least nine other people, some said to be members of Mr Rayyan's family, were also killed in the air raid on his home in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the north of the Gaza Strip.

The deaths come as the main UN agency operating in Gaza, Unwra, has resumed food deliveries, but warned of a dire humanitarian situation in the territory.

The UN says at least 25% of the 402 Palestinians killed were civilians; Palestinian medical officials say more than 2,000 people have been injured.

Israel is refusing entry to Gaza for international journalists and has declared the area around it a "closed military zone", leading to speculation a ground offensive into the tiny coastal strip could be imminent.

'Truce violated'

Both Israel and Hamas have ignored international calls for a ceasefire.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said there was no need for a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds as more lorries containing aid were entering Gaza than before the conflict began last Saturday.

Speaking in Paris after talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, she said Hamas had used the previous six-month truce, which ended mid-December, to re-arm.

Tzipi Livni says Hamas is a problem for all Palestinians

"Another thing which is important to understand is that Israel accepted a truce a few months ago that was initiated by Egypt, but during the few months of the truce Hamas violated the truce, and they used it in order to get missiles with a longer range."

Hamas has said Israel must stop bombarding Gaza and lift its blockade of the territory before it will consider a ceasefire.

Mr Sarkozy is travelling to the Middle East next week in an attempt to find a way to end the crisis.

A draft UN resolution put forward by Egypt and Libya failed after the US and UK complained that it called on Israel to ends its air assaults but made no mention of Hamas rocket attacks against Israel, which they say started the latest hostilities.

For the current violence to end, Israel needs to show that it has stopped the rocket fire, says the BBC's Middle East Editor, Jeremy Bowen.

But if Hamas can still resist, its leaders will feel they can claim victory. Hamas believes that its fighters who are launching rockets into Israel are taking part in legitimate resistance against an occupier, he adds.

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