UN chief calls for calm in Middle East

The UN Secretary General has called on Hamas to end its rocket attacks on Israel while urging Israeli leaders to exercise the maximum restraint.

A spokesman said Ban Ki-moon "is extremely concerned about the continued violence in Gaza and Israel, and deeply worried by the rising cost in terms of civilian lives".

Mr Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, added: "He urgently appeals to all concerned to do everything under their command to stop this dangerous escalation and restore calm.

"Rocket attacks are unacceptable and must stop at once. Israel must exercise maximum restraint.

"A new cycle of bloodshed will make neither Israelis nor Palestinians more secure. Nor will bloodshed open the door to negotiations that could achieve the two-state solution necessary to end such violence permanently."

Mr Ban's "paramount concern is for the safety and well-being of all civilians. All sides must respect their obligations under international humanitarian law in this regard," his spokesman said.

Mr Nesirky would not comment on questions about where Mr Ban would travel in the region, and whether he would visit Gaza or Israel.

On Wednesday, the Security Council held a closed-door emergency meeting on Gaza, but did not issue any formal statement or take any action. The council did not have any further meetings on Gaza scheduled as of Friday afternoon.

At least 23 Palestinians, including 12 militants and six children, as well as three Israelis have been killed in the fighting.

The dead included a teacher who worked for the UN, Marwan Abu El Qumsan, who was killed on Wednesday. He was in his early 50s and taught Arabic at a school run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East in Jabalia.

The agency said the violence in Gaza had forced it to close its schools temporarily.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said yesterday that the escalating violence has triggered widespread fear on both sides of the border, and the humanitarian situation in Gaza "remains precarious".

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