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Envoys race to halt Gaza violence

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The scene in Gaza as Israeli forces continue their assault

Intense diplomatic efforts are under way to try to secure a ceasefire in Gaza as the Israeli assault against Hamas militants enters its 10th day.

Separate missions to the Middle East are being led by the French president, and a high-level team from the EU.

Israeli troops pushed deeper into Gaza, with reports by unnamed Palestinian sources of Israeli tanks moving towards the southern town of Khan Younis.

Palestinians say two adults and five children were killed overnight.

They say more than 500 people have been killed so far.

Map

The Israeli military said it carried out 30 air strikes overnight. Targets included a mosque, smuggling tunnels and the homes of Hamas leaders.

The Palestinians said there had also been clashes in the east, near the Israeli border. Earlier, Israeli forces took up positions in the north on either side of Gaza City.

The BBC's Tim Franks on the Israeli-Gaza border says that tens of thousands of Israeli reservists, and hundreds more tanks, are assembled on the border with Gaza.

Israel says its intentions are to suppress Palestinian militant rocket attacks, which have killed five Israelis since the start of the campaign.

Our correspondent says militant rocket fire has dwindled, for the time being, with just five missiles launched overnight.

Hamas officials say 10 of its fighters have been killed in the ground offensive, which began late on Saturday, while the Israeli military reports one of its soldiers dead and 53 wounded.

Shuttle diplomacy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy will be shuttling across the Middle East, taking in Egypt as well as Jerusalem, the Palestinian West Bank town of Ramallah and Syria.

Israeli soldiers comfort each other at the funeral for a comrade on 4 January

In a separate development, a Hamas official said a delegation of the Islamist group would head for talks in Egypt.

Mr Sarkozy's Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, is part of an EU delegation, which has already been in Cairo.

It is headed by the Czech Foreign Minister, Karel Schwartzenberg, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, and includes EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

After talks with Egypt's foreign minister, the EU appealed for an end to both Israel's shelling of Gaza and Palestinian militant rocket attacks on Israel.

Cairo said a UN Security Council resolution was urgently needed.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said it was vital to get food and medical supplies into Gaza to ensure hospitals were able to function.

Israel has said it will allow more aid into Gaza later, and that 80 trucks would cross from Israel carrying food and medicines.

Rising death toll

Flashes of explosions could be seen overnight from the northern border of Gaza and the regular sounds of gun and artillery fire could be heard.

Fighting appeared to move away from the northern end of the territory towards more populous areas in the west, correspondents say.

The Palestinian health ministry says 509 Palestinians have been killed since the Israelis began their assault on Gaza more than a week ago. Of these, it says, about 70, mostly civilians, have died since the ground offensive began on Saturday.

Some 2,500 people have reportedly also been wounded.

The figures could not be independently verified. Israel is refusing to let international journalists into Gaza despite a ruling by its supreme court to admit a limited number of reporters.

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