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Egypt invites world leaders for Gaza talks

Israel poised to announce unilateral truce

Egypt invited several world leaders for talks on the violence in Gaza As Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was poised to announce a unilateral ceasefire to halt Israel's assault on Gaza on Saturday.

Invitations for the summit on Sunday in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh were sent to Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Turkey as well as to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Olmert was scheduled to announce that Israel will silence its guns after a security council meeting, but will order troops to return fire if they are attacked, a senior government official said.

A defense ministry official later said that troops would remain inside the fenced-off coastal strip for several days before pulling back.

"Maybe there will be a salvo of rockets in the first day or so (after the truce) but after that the army will respond to any attacks," he told AFP.

Egypt calls for offensive to end

Egypt on Saturday called on Israel to end its offensive in the Gaza Strip immediately, hours before the Israel security cabinet was set to decide whether it should halt operations in the enclave unilaterally; plans Hamas rejected Israel's because it did not determine a full Israeli withdrawal.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said both Israel and Hamas have held to strict positions "that the continuous blood-letting in Gaza cannot tolerate" during indirect negotiations on an Egyptian ceasefire plan -- an indication that the talks have not made enough progress.

"I call on Israel today to end its military operations immediately. And we call on its leaders to (agree) to an unconditional ceasefire and I call on them to withdraw all the forces completely from the strip," he said in a televised address to the nation.

The Middle East News Agency (MENA) reported that Abbas and Sarkozy are set to hold talks with Egyptian President Hosni Muabark on Sunday.

Mubarak also said Egypt would call for an international meeting to discuss post-war reconstruction in the Palestinian coastal enclave.

Hamas officials were set to hold talks in Cairo with Egyptian mediators to hear the Israeli response to proposals put forward by group.

Hamas has offered a one-year, renewable truce on condition that all Israeli forces leave Gaza within a week and that all the border crossings with Israel and Egypt are opened..

Reaching the goals

Israel is very close to securing the objectives of its 22-day-old offensive in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.

"After three weeks of Operation Cast Lead, we are very close to reaching the goals and securing them through diplomatic agreements," Barak said during a visit to the south of the country, according to a statement from his office.

His comments came ahead of a meeting of Israel's security cabinet which is expected to approve a proposal for a unilateral ceasefire while keeping troops in Gaza for an unspecified period.

After three weeks of Operation Cast Lead, we are very close to reaching the goals and securing them through diplomatic agreements

Ehud Barak

Israeli cabinet

Israel's security cabinet was expected to vote in favor of the proposal at a meeting Saturday night under which Israel would silence its guns even without a reciprocal agreement from the Palestinian group Hamas.

Under the terms of the proposal, Israeli troops would remain inside the territory for an unspecified period, a senior government official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Tel Aviv expected Hamas to halt its attacks as well, the official said, but warned that "if it decides to open fire, we will not hesitate to respond and resume our offensive."

"The (Israeli) security cabinet is expected to vote in favor of a unilateral ceasefire at (Saturday's) meeting following the signing of the memorandum in Washington and significant progress made in Cairo," the government official said.

The breakthrough came after Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni signed an agreement in Washington with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice under which the United States would assist in preventing smuggling into Gaza, and a top envoy returned from talks with officials in Cairo.

"(Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert was satisfied with the results of the talks in Cairo, which answered Israel's basic requirements for a thorough answer to Israel's demands to halt rocket fire and an agreement on coordination between Israel and Egypt on the opening of the crossings" in Gaza, added the official.

Rejection by Hamas

Hamas rejected Israel's plans to call a unilateral ceasefire because it did not determine a full Israeli withdrawal and made no mention of lifting its crippling blockade off the strip, where more than 1, 300 people have been killed in Israel's deadly assault that continued into day 22.

"This unilateral ceasefire does not foresee a withdrawal" by the Israeli army, said Osama Hemdan, the movement's Lebanon representative.

"As long as it remains in Gaza, resistance and confrontation will continue," he said, adding Israel's proposal for a unilateral ceasefire was an "attempt to derail the Egyptian plan" for a reciprocal truce.

Hemdan said that one of Hamas's key conditions for a ceasefire was ending the blockade on Gaza's crossings, but that the Islamists were prepared to accept "guarantees" on their reopening.

Bloodshed continues

Israeli warships and tanks, dug in on the outskirts of Gaza City, kept lobbying shells into the densely populated urban area, while to the north in Beit Lahiya a U.N.-run school was set ablaze by bombs.

Two children, five and seven years old, were killed and another dozen people wounded in the attack, in which burning embers rained down on a school where some 1,600 people were sheltering, setting parts of the building alight.

Rights groups have accused Israel of using phosphorous bombs, which are designed to send up a smokescreen on open battlefields, in crowded civilian areas. Israel has said its weapons are all legal under international law.

Ban Ki-moon on Saturday called the attack "outrageous," pointing out that it was not the first time UN schools have been struck by Israeli forces. Gaza's main UN food aid compound was also hit by an Israeli tank shell.

"Top Israeli leaders had given me their assurances two days ago when I was visiting Israel that U.N. premises would be fully respected. I strongly demand a thorough investigation," Ban told reporters in Beirut.

An Israeli military spokesman said investigations have been launched into all incidents in which civilian targets have been hit, but said initial investigations revealed that troops had been fired upon from each location.

At least 1,205 Palestinians, including 410 children, have been killed since the start of Israel's deadliest-ever assault on the territory on December 27, according to Gaza medics, who said another 5,300 people have been wounded.

Those slain in the war also include 108 women, 113 elderly people, 14 paramedics, and four journalists, according to Dr. Muawiya Hassanein, the head of Gaza emergency services.

Israeli leaders had given me their assurances two days ago when I was visiting Israel that U.N. premises would be fully respected. I strongly demand a thorough investigation

Ban Ki-Moon