FRESH US BID FOR PEACE IN GAZA

CAIRO - US President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy yesterday called for a Gaza ceasefire to be consolidated and pledged that the new administration would vigorously pursue peace and stability in the region.

CAIRO - US President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy yesterday called for a Gaza ceasefire to be consolidated and pledged that the new administration would vigorously pursue peace and stability in the region.

Speaking in Cairo after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose country is trying to mediate a long-term truce, George Mitchell said: "It is of critical importance that the ceasefire be extended and consolidated, and we support Egypt's continuing efforts in that regard."

A surge of violence has threatened the fragile separate truces that Israel and the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers put into effect on January 18 after a 22-day Israeli offensive.

Israeli aircraft bombed smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border in response to the killing on Tuesday of an Israeli soldier on patrol along Israel's frontier with the coastal enclave.

While Israeli leaders weighed more military action, Palestinian work crews used giant yellow bulldozers and back hoes to repair tunnels damaged by bombing during the Gaza war and in the latest attack.

Israel fears Hamas could rebuild the underground network to replenish an arsenal of rockets used in cross-border attacks on its southern communities.

Mitchell, Obama's envoy, planned to meet Israeli leaders yesterday and hold talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank today.

Western diplomats said he would not meet Hamas officials.

Hamas is shunned by the West over its refusal to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept peace deals.

Mitchell said Washington was "committed to pursuing lasting peace and stability in the region". - Reuters

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