Two girls, one aged five and the other 12, were killed on Friday when their house in northern Gaza was hit by a rocket which witnesses said was apparently fired by Palestinian militants targeting southern Israel.
Four other family members were wounded.
The casualties came amid mounting speculation that the Israeli military will soon launch an operation in the Gaza Strip, which most media said would probably be limited in scope and not a full-scale invasion.
“Army preparing for combined ground, air operation in Gaza,” declared the front-page headline in Israel\’s Haaretz newspaper.
Israel issues firm warning
Violence in and around the Palestinian enclave has flared since a six-month ceasefire ended on December 19, and escalated dramatically on Wednesday when militants fired more than 80 rockets and mortar rounds after Israel launched deadly air strikes over the coastal strip.
On Friday, 13 rockets and mortar shells hit southern Israel, causing no casualties but damaging a house that was unoccupied at the time.
Israel had responded to earlier rocket attacks by tightening the blockade it has imposed since the Islamist Hamas violently seized power in Gaza in June 2007.
But officials said dozens of truckloads of supplies were delivered to Gaza on Friday after Israel decided to temporarily allow humanitarian aid into the impoverished territory.
At the same time, the Israeli government issued dire warnings to Gaza militants, saying it will strike back hard if attacks continue.
“I will not hesitate to use Israel\’s strength to strike at Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview with Al-Arabiya television on Thursday, adding ominously that “tens of thousands of children and innocents” will be at risk “as a result of Hamas\’s actions”.
Since the Egyptian-mediated truce ended last week, Israel has threatened to launch a major offensive on Gaza, and senior leaders have called for the toppling of Hamas.
The Islamist movement — which is sworn to destruction of the Jewsish state — has warned in turn that it would retaliate by resuming suicide bombings inside Israel. The last such attack claimed by Hamas was in January 2005.
Ongoing pressure to address Hamas
Popular pressure for a military operation has mounted in Israel.
“The systematic shelling of civilians in Israel\’s communities is a war crime and a crime against humanity. The state of Israel has to protect its citizens,” the mass-selling Yediot Aharonot said.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who hopes to replace Olmert as prime minister after the February 10 election, has vowed to topple Hamas if her Kadima party wins.
Under former prime minister Ariel Sharon, the centrist party orchestrated the pullout of Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation, but Israel retains control of the borders and the airspace.
Meanwhile, Iran\’s Red Crescent is sending 2,000 tonnes of food, medicine and appliances as well as 12 doctors and relief workers to Gaza in defiance of Israel\’s blockade, the Iranian state broadcaster said on Friday.
Tehran is a staunch supporter of Hamas but rejects allegations it is supplying arms to the movement, saying it provides only moral backing.
Guinea paid its final respects to late dictator Lansana Conte as the military junta that seized control in the wake of his death launched an attempt to allay international intervention.
High profile mourners
Supporters and even critics of the veteran strongman, who also took power in a coup and ruled for 24 years, were among thousands taking part in funeral ceremonies in Conakry.
Among the mourners were the presidents of Guinea\’s neighbours, Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, Liberia\’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast and Joao Bernardo Vieira of Guinea-Bissau.
The top officials of the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, Jean Ping and Mohammed Ibn Chambas, were also present along with civil and military officials, and Conte\’s wives and children.
Despite frequently denouncing Conte for “pillaging” the country, trade union leaders were among those paying respect with messages of condolence to his family.
But Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, the junta head who now styles himself president, could not be seen as the white coffin, draped with Guinea\’s red, yellow and green flag and escorted by men of the presidential guard, arrived at the parliament building.
Following speeches of tribute the coffin was borne to the national stadium for another ceremony for ordinary Guineans in front of a capacity crowd of more than 30,000.
It was to be taken later to a mosque and then to Conte\’s village of Lansanaya, around 120 kilometers (75 miles) north-west of Conakry, for burial.
Junta courts international acceptance
Beset by calls from abroad to return the country to civilian rule and stage elections, Camara has invited foreign envoys to meet with him on Saturday “to reassure the international community.”
The military junta, in a statement read on national radio, said it would first hold an “informational meeting” with “representatives of civil society, political parties, religious faiths and unions.”
A second meeting would take place at noon for representatives of the United Nations, European Union and African Union and the Group of Eight leading industralised countries.
International calls for democracy
The coup has met with widespread international criticism, particularly of Camara\’s decision to rule out elections for at least two years.
In a new statement Friday, former colonial power France urged Guinea to organise free elections within six months “so that the people of Guinea can freely express its will.”
Foreign ministry spokesman Frederic Desagneaux said the French ambassador to Conakry would attend Saturday\’s meeting in France\’s capacity as current president of the European Union.
The United States has also demanded an immediate return to civilian rule in the country of 10 million people.
‘Yesterday, you were in power, today it\’s our turn’
Camara on Thursday won the allegiance of Conte\’s prime minister Ahmed Tidiane Souare, who addressed him as “Mr President” and told the coup leader that he and his ministers were ready to serve the junta.
Camara, who has already appointed a military-dominated governing council in place of the civilian government, told Souare that he could help him run the country but left no doubt who was now in charge.
“Yesterday, you were in power, today it\’s our turn,” he said.
Camara assured Souare of his safety and told the prime minister that military rule was only temporary.
The United States said that massive Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip were the fault of Islamist Hamas “thugs,” as rival world powers urged both sides to halt escalating violence.
Outgoing US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement that the US “holds Hamas responsible,” whereas the European Union, Russia and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon distanced themselves from blaming either side.
US sides with Israel
As global reaction began to polarise, Israel\’s strongest ally accused Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, of bringing destruction upon itself by breaking a six-month ceasefire which expired on December 19.
“These people are nothing but thugs, and so Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said at George W. Bush\’s Texas ranch.
“If Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel, then Israel would not have a need for strikes in Gaza,” Johndroe said. “What we\’ve got to see is Hamas stop firing rockets into Israel.
“The United States holds Hamas responsible for breaking the ceasefire; we want the ceasefire restored. We\’re concerned about the humanitarian situation and want all parties concerned to work to make sure the people of Gaza get the humanitarian assistance they need,” said Johndroe.
The State Department amended Rice\’s initial statement about holding Hamas responsible to say “we” rather than the United States, adding that “the United States calls on all concerned to protect innocent lives and to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza.”
At least 225 Palestinians have been killed, according to the head of Gaza emergency services. Another three people were reported killed later, taking the toll to at least 228.
In the Middle East, the Arab League singled out Israel for blame, and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference accused it of a “war crime” for not protecting the lives of civilians.
Middle East envoy Tony Blair deplored the “tragic of loss of life,” and urged a “new strategy for Gaza, which brings that territory back under the legitimate rule of the Palestinian Authority in a manner which ends their suffering and fully protects the security of Israel.”
In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he “strongly condemns the irresponsible provocations which led to this situation as well as the disproportionate use of force.”
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana meanwhile said the Israeli strikes were “inflicting an unacceptable toll on Palestinian civilians and will only worsen the humanitarian crisis as well as complicate the search for a peaceful solution.”
The EU also called for all crossing points out of Gaza to be reopened and deliveries of aid and fuel to resume, along with free access for international humanitarian groups, journalists and diplomats, which Israel has blocked.
While Ban expressed his alarm at the “bloodshed,” Hamas said Saturday it had retaliated with more rockets which Israeli medics said killed at least one person in the southern town of Netivot.
Demonstrations condemning Israel\’s strikes on Hamas targets took place from Istanbul to Paris and in the Moroccan capital, Rabat.
Russia\’s foreign ministry called on Israel “to halt immediately the large-scale acts of force against the Gaza Strip” while German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Hamas to “immediately and definitively end its unacceptable rocket attacks against Israel,” according to Sunday newspaper Bild am Sonntag.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was “deeply concerned” about the situation in Gaza, adding he understood “the Israel government\’s sense of obligation to its population.”
Arab League calls extraordinary summit
The Arab League will hold an extraordinary summit in Doha on January 2 to discuss the latest Israeli-Palestinian violence, diplomats said. Arab foreign ministers will meet on Wednesday, ahead of the summit.
Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi called for “urgent action” during a telephone conversation with Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, state news agency TAP reported.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi government said it would take part in the Arab League meeting and condemned the Israeli strikes for leaving behind “many victims –innocent people and children.”
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in a statement that “Egypt condemns the Israeli military aggression on the Gaza Strip and blames Israel, as an occupying force, for the victims and the wounded.”
He ordered the Rafah crossing point between Egypt and Gaza to be opened for wounded Palestinians to be evacuated “so they can receive the necessary treatment in Egyptian hospitals.”
In Amman the royal palace said King Abdullah of Jordan had been in touch with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and with Mubarak to “launch an Arab and international initiative aimed at ending the Israeli aggression.”
From Turkey, a Muslim country that has been an ally of Israel in the region, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Israeli military operation was a mark of “disrespect” for Ankara\’s efforts to negotiate peace for Israel with its longtime foe Syria.
Syria in turn condemned “the barbaric Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people in Gaza,” the foreign ministry said.
Two Al-Qaeda prisoners who broke out of a police jail in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi were arrested hours after their accomplice was killed by Iraqi police snipers, police said.
The arrest of the two men brought to an end a dramatic series of events that began early on Friday when the three local Al-Qaeda leaders escaped from cells in Forsan police station triggering a deadly firefight that killed 13 militants and policemen.
The man shot dead on Saturday by Iraqi forces was Imad Ahmed Farhan, nicknamed “Imad the Killer” because police say the Qaeda operative had confessed to murdering at least 100 people and setting over 100 roadside bombs.
Extensive manhunt ends in arrests
Farhan\’s accomplices, Abdel Aleem and Lazeem, were arrested in the central Ramadi district of Andaluz early on Sunday following a desperate manhunt that lasted nearly two days, Ramadi police major Alaa al-Jassam, told AFP.
“They are now being held in a police station in Ramadi,” said Jassam.
Farhan\’s two accomplices were found hiding in water tanks in a private home, Udai Mohammed Daud, an intelligence police captain, told AFP.
“They were arrested on the second floor of a home, hiding in water tanks,” said Daud, adding they had taken the suspects without firing a shot after receiving a tip.
‘Imad the Killer’ repeatedly shot by snipers
Farhan, 32, was killed by sniper fire around midday Saturday after a fierce gun battle in which he had taken a family hostage in a home on Street 20 in the centre of Ramadi, capital of Anbar province in western Iraq, police said.
Police had been carrying out a massive manhunt since Friday and found Farhan holed up in a home in central Ramadi. They were alerted to his whereabouts when one of the hostages was able to get word to a neighbour.
“The female hostage got to the back of the house and was able to tell her neighbour that they were hostages and that a terrorist was there,” Colonel Salah Arar, commander of the southern sector of Ramadi police, told AFP.
“We took a police unit and a sniper squad with us and we identified the room in the house where he was,” Arar said.
“One of our snipers shot him but only wounded him. Then as he tried to move across the roof from one house to another, one of our snipers shot him five or six times.”
Pictures of a man alleged to be Farhan showed a body riddled with bullet holes.
Police raided the home of Farhan\’s sister on Friday and confiscated his passport and his national identity document in case he tried to flee abroad, Ramadi police captain Mohammed Daud said.
Dramatic prison break
The daring and apparently well-planned breakout from the station began at around 2 am Friday when a prisoner called out that he was sick and a policeman went to a communal cell to check.
When the officer entered the cell holding 40 men, 13 of them Al-Qaeda members, they grabbed him and cut his throat with a makeshift knife. They then seized his gun and went to the police chief\’s office and slit his throat.
The Al-Qaeda prisoners then dashed into the courtyard where they shot a lieutenant and made it to the armoury before the gun battle erupted.
The prisoners and police battled for two hours before the officers managed to regain control of the complex. One prisoner was recaptured after suffering gunshot wounds.
The predominantly Sunni Arab city of 540,000 was a key Al-Qaeda stronghold in the aftermath of the toppling of Saddam Hussein\’s regime by US-led forces in 2003.
Iraq\’s biggest province became the theatre of a brutal war focused on the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, while a string of towns along the Euphrates valley became insurgent strongholds and later safe havens for Al-Qaeda.
Farhan himself has been captured twice by US forces and following his release he took charge of Al-Qaeda financing in Ramadi. He later fled to Syria.
When he returned in 2007, he was arrested by Iraqi police but US forces demanded his transfer to Camp Bucca because of his criminal record.
He was then handed to Iraqi police four months ago and was set to go on trial.
“I interrogated him personally, and he admitted to me that he had killed more than 60 brothers of the south (Shiite) on the road between Ramadi and the Jordan border and had planted more than 100 roadside bombs that killed dozens,” Arar said.
Guinea\’s new military leader promised to renegotiate mining contracts and crack down on corruption as he met with local people, keen to consolidate his bloodless coup.
Guinea, the world\’s top bauxite exporter, will renegotiate all mining contracts and freeze gold extraction until further notice, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara said.
“We have blocked the mining sector,” he told around 1,000 representatives of civil society at the junta\’s base in Conakry. “There will be a renegotiation of contracts.”
“In gold mining areas, the decision has already been taken: no more extraction until further notice,” he added.
Strategic local forum
The representatives of political parties, trade unions, religious faiths and civil associations had been summoned to the open-air meeting at the Alfa Yaya Diallo camp near Conakry\’s international airport.
Those present included the speaker of parliament, Aboubacar Sompare, who under the constitution should have succeeded as acting head of state following the death late Monday of President Lansana Conte.
Sompare had contested the legitimacy of the coup leaders who seized power within hours of Conte\’s death, but was undermined on Thursday when prime minister Tidiane Souare and his government pledged loyalty to Camara.
Camara pledged to root out corruption in the mineral-rich country, warning that “anyone who has misappropriated state assets for his benefit, if caught, will be judged and punished before the people.”
Calls for support and change
The coup leader said that under Conte\’s 1984-2008 rule, Guinea had suffered a “great embezzlement” of public funds. However, he absolved Conte personally of corruption, describing him as “honest” and called for a minute\’s silence in memory of the late dictator.
But he said “there are ministers who surrounded the head of state who looted the country, who constructed buildings, and had bank accounts everywhere.
“At a time when the president was tired, all the people who surrounded him filled their pockets,” he added.
Announcing an action plan to clean up the government, Camara lambasted “the irresponsibility and notorious incapacity” of the parliament and the corruption of the government he toppled this week.
Trade union leader Rabiatou Serah Diallo, a fierce opponent of Conte\’s regime, welcomed the speech, particularly Camara\’s promise to punish those guilty of corruption. “The fight against impunity must become a reality in Guinea,” she said.
Almost all Guinea\’s trade unions and opposition parties have refrained from condemning the coup.
During his speech, the captain was flanked by Lieutenant-Colonel Sekouba Konate, the third highest-ranking member of the military junta who later Saturday was named its defence minister.
The junta, in a statement read on national radio, was supposed to hold another “informational meeting” with the diplomatic community later Saturday but postponed it to next Tuesday because the public meeting called for 1000 GMT had overrun.
Mixed international response
The coup has been largely condemned abroad and the African Union said it would continue to oppose it as unconstitutional.
However the junta on Friday was backed by regional heavyweight Senegal, whose President Abdoulaye Wade said Camara was an honest young man who had taken power to fill a dangerous vacuum.
The military leadership said Saturday it was lifting a curfew on the capital Conakry after a military source said soldiers had used the measure to extort money or property from civilians.
Soldiers who sought to profit from the country\’s political uncertainty and “violate” the curfew would be “severely sanctioned,” according to the announcement on state radio.
More than a third of the world\’s bauxite reserves are located in Guinea, making it the second-largest producer internationally after Australia and the world\’s biggest exporter.
It also has large reserves of gold, diamonds, iron and nickel, while uranium deposits were found at various sites in 2007.
Despite its vast natural resources, the West African nation ranks 160th out of 177 in the UN\’s development scale.