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Page last updated at 22:50 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

Key Hamas leader killed in Gaza

Said Siyam - file photo
Said Siyam was one of the top Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip

One of the top Hamas leaders in Gaza has been killed in an air strike, Hamas and Israeli officials have said.

Said Siyam, the Hamas interior minister, was killed in an air raid on his brother's home near Gaza City.

Earlier, Israeli troops and tanks moved closer into the heart of Gaza City, engaging in fierce gun battles with fighters from Hamas.

The UN's relief agency, Unrwa, said part of its HQ in Gaza caught fire after being hit by Israeli shells.

Senior figure

As interior minister, Mr Siyam controlled thousands of Hamas security troops in Gaza and was said to be widely feared.

His son and brother were also killed in the strike, along with two other Hamas officials - the interior ministry's security director Saleh Abu Sharkh and the local leader of the Hamas militia, Mahmoud Abu Watfah.

PROFILE: SAID SIYAM
Born: 1959, Shati refugee camp
Six children - two boys, four girls
Member of Hamas Political Bureau
Elected to Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006; top Hamas MP
Became Hamas interior minister in 2007, after serving one year as Palestinian interior minster
Said to have become member of Hamas "collective leadership" in Gaza after 2004 killings of Sheikh Yassin and Abdel-Aziz Rantissi
Created Hamas Executive Force, a paramilitary which played key role in take-over of Gaza in June 2007
Killed in Israeli air strike on 15 January 2009

Mr Siyam is one of the most senior Hamas leaders killed in the 20-day Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip aimed at stopping Palestinian rocket fire into Israel.

He became a member of the "collective leadership" of the militant group in 2004 after Sheikh Yassin and Abdel-Aziz Rantissi were assassinated by Israel.

His death came at the end of a day of fierce clashes which also saw the UN compound in Gaza City shelled by Israeli troops.

UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa) spokesman Christopher Gunness said three of the agency's employees were hurt in the attack.

About 700 people were sheltering in the compound at the time, he said, and the fire burnt through stocks of food and medicine, approaching five full fuel tanks.

Mr Olmert met UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Tel Aviv and apologised for the attack, but said Palestinian fighters had been firing from the UN site.

"It is absolutely true that we were attacked from that place, but the consequences are very sad and we apologise for it," he said.

"I don't think it should have happened and I'm very sorry."

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The Israeli attack on the housing complex left a huge crater

The Gaza Strip was subjected to a punishing series of air strikes overnight and shell-fire raked the coastal enclave as soldiers and tanks pushed into Gaza City.

The advancing troops came under fire from fighters from Hamas and other Palestinian factions positioned on rooftops and balconies, said the BBC's Rushdi Abualouf.

The building where he lives in the Gaza City suburb of Tel al-Hawa was surrounded by Israeli tanks at one point, he said, and several shells hit the lower floors.

At least one hospital in Gaza City - al Quds, run by the Palestinian Red Crescent - was hit by shellfire, but no injuries were reported.

A tower block housing offices from several media companies was also hit. One journalist from the Abu Dhabi television channel was injured.

Columns of thick smoke rose into the sky over Gaza as the fighting carried on through the day.

Fire-fighters try to control a blaze after an Israeli airstrike in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, 15 January 2009

A total of 1,083 people in Gaza have now been killed since the Israeli operation began, Gaza's Ministry of Health said on Thursday - 70 higher than the previous day's figure. Nearly a third of the dead are children, Gaza medics said.

Thirteen Israelis - including three civilians - have died. Two-hundred-and-thirty-three soldiers have been wounded, an Israeli army spokesman said.

As the clashes continued in Gaza, about 25 rockets were fired from the territory into southern Israel, Israeli police said.

Eight people were injured in Beersheba from the rocket fire, Israeli medical officials said.

Humanitarian crisis

As Gaza saw one of the fiercest days of fighting since the conflict began on 27 December, international condemnation of the Israeli operation grew.

In the midst of a Middle East tour to rally support for an end to the fighting, Mr Ban repeated previous calls for an immediate ceasefire.

GAZA CRISIS BACKGROUND
Destroyed building in Gaza City

He said the suffering in Gaza was a "dire humanitarian crisis" that had reached an "unbearable point".

Meanwhile, Hamas and Israeli negotiators were said to be making progress towards a ceasefire agreement as they held separate meetings with Egyptian mediators in Cairo.

Egypt has been leading efforts to broker a ceasefire that could include a peacekeeping force being deployed along its border with Gaza to prevent the smuggling of weapons.

Hamas has said any ceasefire agreement would have to include a halt to Israeli attacks, the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces and the opening of border crossings to end the blockade of Gaza.

Israel wants an end to rockets being fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip and an internationally-supported mechanism to ensure that Hamas can not re-arm in the future.

Israel has refused to allow international journalists to enter Gaza without supervision, making it impossible to independently confirm casualty figures.

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