Hamas announces ceasefire

After exchanges of gunfire and an air strike punctured what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acknowledged was a “fragile” ceasefire, Gaza\’s Hamas rulers and other armed groups said they would silence their guns for the next seven days to give Israeli troops a chance to withdraw from the territory.

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“We in the Palestinian resistance movements announce a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and demand that enemy forces withdraw in a week and open all theborder crossings to permit the entry of humanitarian aid and basic goods,” Mussa Abu Marzuk, the deputy leader of Hamas\’s politburo, said in Damascus.

Dawud Shihab, a Gaza-based spokesman for Islamic Jihad, a smaller armed faction, said the truce would give an opportunity for Arab governments to put pressure on Israel to withdraw all its troops.

“During this period, the resistance is ready to respond to all efforts by the Egyptians, Turks, Syrians and Arabs that will allow for a total withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and the total opening of border crossings,” he told AFP.

More rockets fired into Israel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the halt in fighting a “window of opportunity” in terms of achieving a “lasting peace” between Israel and the Palestinians.

“There\’s no alternative to a two-state solution. Everyone must back the right of Israel to live as a Jewish state just as everyone must recognise the Palestinians\’ right to a Palestinian state,” Merkel said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed Israel\’s ceasefire but said: “This is only a first step, it must go further.”

The delegation from Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, earlier attended a summit in Egypt with Arab leaders aimed at shoring up the truce.

Egypt holds talks with Hamas

Egypt held separate talks with the Islamist Hamas group which rules Gaza and President Hosni Mubarak announced plans to host an international aid conference to help rebuild Gaza.

“This fragile ceasefire has got to be followed immediately, if it is to be sustainable, by humanitarian access… by troop withdrawals, by an end to arms trafficking,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in Egypt.

Israel urged to reopen Gaza crossings

In Jerusalem, Brown urged Israel to reopen crossings into Gaza.

After exchanges of gunfire and an air strike punctured what Olmert acknowledged was a “fragile” unilateral ceasefire, Hamas and other armed groups announced their own one-week ceasefire.

“(We) demand that enemy forces withdraw in a week and open all the border crossings to permit the entry of humanitarian aid and basic goods,” Mussa Abu Marzuk, the deputy leader of Hamas\’s politburo, said in Damascus.

Israel orders end to offensive

Olmert announced late Saturday that he had ordered an end to offensive operations in Gaza after 22 days of combat but that troops would remain in the territory and would fire back if attacked.

After the ceasefire came into effect at 2:00 am (0000 GMT), Gaza enjoyed its first bomb-free night in more than three weeks, but there were soon signs that the calm was unravelling.

As militants fired rockets and Israel launched retaliatory air strikes, troops shot dead an eight-year-old girl in the northern town of Beit Hanun and a 20-year-old man near Khan Yunis in the south, medics said.

“The government\’s decision allows Israel to respond and renew the fire if our enemy in the Gaza Strip continues its strikes,” Olmert said at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.

“This morning they again proved that the ceasefire is fragile and it has to be reassessed on a minute-by-minute basis,” he said.

Gaza death toll at 1,300: medics

Gaza medics took advantage of the halt in the fighting to rush to areas which had been inaccessible, pulling at least 95 bodies from the rubble, including those of several children.

The discoveries brought the overall death toll since Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on December 27 to at least 1,300, the medics said, making it by far the deadliest Israeli offensive ever launched on the Gaza Strip.

Hamas hails \’victory\’

On the ground, as Hamas congratulated the Palestinians on “victory” from mosque loudspeakers, Gaza residents cautiously ventured out into the streets to survey the rubble that was once their homes.

“Everything has been completely destroyed,” said Yahia Karin, 54, as he surveyed the damage in Zeitun, a Gaza City neighbourhood ravaged by furious battles between Israeli ground troops and Hamas militants.

Abbas calls for complete withdrawal

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas repeated his call for a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the reopening of the enclave\’s border crossings, saying Israel\’s truce was “important and necessary but insufficient.”

Reacting to the truce announcement from Damascus, government spokesman Mark Regev stressed that Israel was not a partner to any agreement with Hamas, a group which is sworn to the Jewish state\’s destruction.

“If Hamas does not attack Israel and does not provoke Israel, we will honour the ceasefire,” he said. “We do not want to stay in Gaza. We have no intention of occupying it, and we will withdraw as soon as the situation permits.”