Israeli prime minister warns attacks on Gaza will intensify

GAZA CITY - Israeli warplanes sent missiles slamming into a car carrying Hamas militants and a load of weapons yesterday, and then demolished arms factories belonging to two Palestinian militant groups.

GAZA CITY - Israeli warplanes sent missiles slamming into a car carrying Hamas militants and a load of weapons yesterday, and then demolished arms factories belonging to two Palestinian militant groups.

In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that Israel would escalate its military campaign if the intensified rocket fire on Israeli border communities did not cease.

The sixth straight day of airstrikes came as an uneasy truce between warring Palestinian factions set in.

Gunmen armed with rifles, grenades and explosives climbed down from rooftop positions on Saturday, and dozens of hostages kidnapped in a week of fighting between the Islamic militant Hamas and Fatah gunmen were released yesterday.

The respite allowed battle- weary residents to venture forth from their homes for the first time in days to buy groceries, or to return to homes abandoned during the clashes.

Other recent truces have been short-lived, but Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said he expected this one to stick because of Israel's action.

"No one would accept to fight one another while the Israelis are shelling Gaza," he said.

Israeli cabinet ministers discussed how to respond to the rocket barrages at their weekly meeting yesterday.

"If the diplomatic and military efforts we have taken do not bring calm, we will have to escalate our response," Olmert said at the meeting.

He did not elaborate, but on Saturday Defence Minister Amir Peretz said time was not ripe for a broad offensive in Gaza.

Israel has carried out 21 airstrikes against Gaza since Tuesday, the army said. During this time, more than 120 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel, including three that landed yesterday. One of the three hit an empty home.

Though the attacks have severely disrupted life in parts of southern Israel, the homemade projectiles have rarely caused serious casualties.

The rockets and airstrikes have destroyed a six-month-old truce between Israel and Gaza militants.

The infighting has threatened the survival of a fragile governing alliance between Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, and Fatah, whose moderate leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, hopes to revive peacemaking with the Jewish state.

Three people, including a Hamas militant, died yesterday in the airstrike on the car in Gaza City, bringing to 27 the number of Palestinians killed in the latest round of air attacks.

Clashes between Hamas and Fatah have killed 53 Palestinians over the past week. - Sapa-AP

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