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Germany

German Foreign Minister Flies to Middle East to Mediate in Gaza

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier travels to the Middle East this weekend to add Germany's voice to the mediation efforts in Gaza. Meanwhile the Israeli campaign entered its third week with more air strikes.

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German Foreign Minister Steinmeier will attempt to broker an agreement in Gaza

Steinmeier’s arrival late Friday in Cairo adds yet another player to European Union mediation efforts. Steinmeier said that his stepped up intervention was coordinated with the Czech Republic, currently the EU president.

Steinmeier was scheduled to meet Saturday in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

No location was announced for a planned meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose term of office expired Thursday.

On Sunday, Steinmeier is to meet in Tel Aviv with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and president Shimon Peres. It was not clear if the German would also meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert before returning late Sunday to Berlin.

Steinmeier has already made a series of telephone calls to key players in the region in a bid to achieve a "humanitarian ceasefire" in the Gaza Strip.

The United Nations Security Council late Thursday demanded an immediate end to the fighting. Steinmeier called the resolution, passed 14-0 with the United States abstaining, "an important sign of unity."

Israel launched a bombing campaign on December 27 in the coastal territory followed by a ground invasion on January 3, all with the stated goal of halting rocket attacks by the Gaza-based Islamic militant movement Hamas.

The militant missile fire toward Israel has been unabated despite the presence of Israeli troops and continued airstrikes, with Israeli authorities reporting another 30 rockets fired on Friday.

Germany intent on stopping arms smuggling

Germany has been broadly supportive toward Israel in the conflict, saying it is vital to cut off Hamas' supply of missiles, which are mainly smuggled into Gaza via tunnels from Egypt.

German marines patrol off the coast of Lebanon in 2006

German marines were deployed to stop arms smuggling after the 2006 Lebanon war

"If one does not manage to stop the arms smuggling, the outlook for a ceasefire and a subsequent armistice looks poor," said Thomas Steg, deputy government spokesman.

He refused to say if Germany would offer peace monitors in Gaza.

Other EU figures who have intervened include French President Nicolas Sarkozy, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, former British prime minister Tony Blair representing the Mideast "Quartet" of the United States, EU, UN and Russia, and the Czech as EU president.

Steinmeier's involvement had been only by telephone, with Germany's Middle East envoy, Andreas Michaelis, on the ground in the region.

Some EU governments have been critical of Sarkozy for acting independently of Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.

Steinmeier wants a lasting ceasefire

Steinmeier said that the aim of his trip was "that the appeal for a ceasefire leads to an actual ceasefire."

Frank Walter Steinmeier

Steinmeier hopes to find a way to silence the guns

He said Berlin was "deeply concerned" about the humanitarian crisis inside Gaza. "The situation in the Gaza Strip can only be improved if we achieve a comprehensive ceasefire," Steinmeier said.

Andreas Peschke, deputy Foreign Ministry spokesman, said: "In political and diplomatic terms, we will concentrate first of all on obtaining a ceasefire. We see the principal point of departure in Egypt's initiative. That's why it is important to step up and maintain contacts with Egypt and of course directly with Israel."

Egypt's plan, as backed by Sarkozy, calls for a cessation of violence, allowing aid to reach civilians, and includes an invitation to discuss ending Israel's blockade of Gaza.

Third week of campaign sees intensity increase

Meanwhile, Israel continued its offensive in the Gaza Strip Saturday, pounding over 40 targets overnight, a military spokesman said.

Palestinian firefighters try to extinguish flames at a medicine storehouse after Israeli airstrike targeted at a fuel tank nearby in southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah

More than 40 targets were hit ny Israeli jets on Saturday

The airstrikes, which came on top of 70 such attacks on Friday, largely targeted smuggling tunnels and weapon manufacturing shops.

Israeli soldiers on the ground said they killed 15 armed men, the spokesman added.

Palestinian medical sources in the Gaza Strip have said the death toll has surpassed 800, with over 3,300 people injured. This was the 15th day of fighting.

Five Israeli soldiers were lightly injured in overnight fighting. Troops remains in the Gaza Strip, but for the most part have not entered the most crowded urban areas.

Palestinian militants fired one mortar and three homemade rockets at southern Israel since midnight.

Nine Israeli soldiers and three civilians were killed since Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on December 27, in what was said to be a campaign to curtail Palestinian rocket fire.

UN truce plan goes unheeded

The Israeli offensive continued after the security cabinet decided on Friday to carry on, despite a United Nations' Security Council resolution which called for an immediate ceasefire.

Symbolbild UNO Gaza

Israel and Hamas have both ignored the UN resolution

"Israel has a right to protect its citizens," a statement from the cabinet said, adding that the military would "continue to change the security situation in the south," parlance for attacking militant targets and sources of rocket fire and conducting activities to curtail arms smuggling.

Caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel "has never agreed that any outside body would determine its right to defend the security of its citizens."

Israel also maintains an option, analysts said, to go to "phase three," which would mean sending more ground troops deeper into populated areas.

The military could not say whether there would be a three-hour "humanitarian lull" on Saturday, to allow Palestinians to stock up on food and let medics and patients move freely.

Three such lulls have taken place so far since Wednesday, though Friday's was marred with violence that would not let up, even during the allotted time.

The largest UN aid agencies are also expected to resume activities "as soon as possible" after they reached an understanding with the Israeli security forces. Four staff of UNRWA, the agency for Palestinian refugees, have been killed in the fighting.

The UN said it received security assurances from the Israelis and they would closely monitor their commitment to the safety of the aid workers.

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