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Israeli forces mass at Gaza border

Delay offensive as talks look to end rocket, mortar fire

JERUSALEM -- With its troops massed outside the Gaza Strip, Israel held off a threatened ground offensive yesterday as Egyptian officials arrived for talks in Gaza City in an effort to halt rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian militants that continued for the fourth straight day.

Israeli forces killed a Hamas field commander and fired missiles at a car, hitting back at the militants, who have fired more than 100 mortar rounds and homemade rockets at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and communities in Israel since Thursday.

The surging violence has threatened to bury a truce declared in February and undermine efforts to ensure a smooth Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, scheduled to begin next month.

Israeli tanks and troops were poised at the border of the Gaza Strip, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he ordered the army to act ''without restrictions" to stop the militant attacks, which killed a woman Thursday.

An Israeli ground assault did not appear imminent, however, as political contacts intensified to defuse the crisis.

The Egyptian officials met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza City and with representatives of Hamas to shore up the tottering truce. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to come to the region later this week in another effort to preserve the cease-fire.

Abbas is under intense American and Israeli pressure to halt the attacks and restore calm before the planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Street battles erupted Thursday in Gaza City between Hamas militants and Palestinian forces trying to stop the mortar and rocket firings, and there have been other sporadic clashes in recent days.

''We are going to do our utmost to stop these rockets," he said during a news conference in Gaza City yesterday. ''I cannot promise how much time it will take me."

He said he was warned by US officials that Israel might invade Gaza.

''If this happens, this will sabotage everything," Abbas said.

Israeli officials suggested that they would give Abbas limited time to rein in the militants, but they cautioned that serious Israeli casualties from further attacks could trigger a military offensive into the Gaza Strip to suppress the fire.

Sharon is under pressure from hard-line ministers in his Cabinet to order the army into action. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon's chief rival in the Likud Party, said the army should hit hard now.

''There's no reason to wait for the Palestinian Authority and Abu Mazen," Netanyahu said, referring to Abbas by his nickname. ''They are not lifting a finger."

In a mortar attack yesterday on the Israeli settlement of Neve Dekalim, a shell hit a house and six people were wounded, the army said. Qassam rockets were also fired at the town of Sderot in southern Israel, near the border with the Gaza Strip, but there were no casualties.

In the Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis, Saeed Syam, a Hamas field commander, was killed by a sniper shot that Palestinians said came from the area of an adjacent Israeli settlement. Syam's father said he was hit as he left his house to water the garden.

The army said Syam led squads that fired mortar shells at Israeli settlements and was involved in other attacks that killed Israeli settlers and soldiers. His death brought to eight the number of Hamas militants killed in recent days as Israel has resumed targeted killings of militants, a practice suspended after the truce.

In an airborne strike yesterday, missiles were fired at a car in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip, an area militants have used to fire mortars and rockets. The Israeli army said it targeted a rocket squad. Witnesses said two men in the car escaped and a third was wounded. Other reports said the wounded man was a bystander.

Earlier yesterday, Israeli troops shot and killed a gunman who approached the settlement of Netzarim, the army said.

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