GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip Israeli troops entered southern Gaza and planes attacked two bridges and a power station, knocking out electricity in most of the coastal strip early Wednesday and stepping up the pressure on Palestinian militants holding captive a 19-year-old Israeli soldier.
Israeli troops began taking up positions in two locations east of the Gaza town of Rafah under the cover of tank shells, according to witnesses and Palestinian security officials. Palestinians dug in behind mounds of dirt, bracing for a major Israeli offensive.
The Israeli strikes came amid intensive diplomatic efforts in the Arab world and by the United Nations. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israel to give diplomacy a chance.
Trying to defuse building tensions, negotiators from the ruling Hamas movement said Tuesday they had accepted a document implicitly recognizing Israel. But two Syrian-based Hamas leaders denied a final deal had been reached. Israel said only freedom for the captive soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, could defuse the crisis, not a political agreement.
The Israeli military said in a statement that the object of the attacks on the bridges late Tuesday and early Wednesday was to impair the ability of the terrorists to transfer the kidnapped soldier. Knocking down the bridges would cut Gaza in two, Palestinian security officials said.
Early Wednesday, Israeli planes fired at least nine missiles at Gaza s only power station, cutting electricity to much of the Gaza Strip, Palestinian security officials said. The station s three funtioning turbines and a gasoline reservoir were engulfed in enormous flames that firefighters were unable to control.
The attack raised the specter of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, as water pumps in the strip are powered by electricity.
Israeli military officials said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert approved a limited operation for southern Gaza, aimed at terrorist infrastructure. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Palestinian security forces said Israeli tanks were on the move near the Israeli village of Nahal Oz, a main Israeli staging area just outside Gaza, but that they had not yet entered the territory. An Associated Press reporter saw tanks moving on the Israeli side of the border fence.
Some Israeli troops crossed the border into southern Gaza, near the site of Sunday s militant attack in which Shalit was abducted. It was not immediately clear how many soldiers entered Gaza, though the army confirmed its soldiers were crossing the border. A number of Israeli soldiers had been in Gaza since Sunday s assault.
In the Shajaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City, not far from the fence, armed militants took up positions across from the blaring headlights of Israeli vehicles, and Israeli attack helicopters hovered overhead. The roar of Israeli fighter planes reverberated throughout Gaza City.
The militants told residents to leave the area. They piled gasoline-soaked tires in the streets. Earlier, bulldozers blocked some of the main roads with piles of sand and dirt to try to slow down Israeli tanks.
There were no reports of casualties in the Israeli strikes.
Palestinian TV showed pictures of the first bridge hit, with fallen concrete blocks, twisted metal and protruding water pipes. Children walked in the wreckage.
Shalit s abduction Sunday by Hamas military wing and two other Hamas-linked groups has threatened to turn already devastated relations between Israel and the Hamas-led government into an all-out war. Hamas took over the Palestinian Authority after winning parliamentary elections in January, and has been under international pressure to renounce violence and recognize Israel.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said he had only seen media accounts of the Hamas-Fatah accord, but reiterated that Hamas had to meet three conditions before a crippling aid boycott could be lifted.
Once again, we can all recite from memory now: recognize Israel s right to exist, renounce terror, and abide by all past agreements. Those are the preconditions, Snow said in Washington.
On Tuesday, for the first time since Sunday s assault, in which two Israeli soldiers and two militants were killed, militants acknowledged they were holding Shalit and said he was alive.
The soldier is in a secure place that the Zionists cannot reach, said Mohammed Abdel Al, spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees. He said his group also took a West Bank settler hostage.
Mohammad Nazal, a Damascus-based member of the Hamas politburo, said the militant group would not agree to free the Israeli soldier without a deal.
No release without something in return, he told AP. This is the popular demand and we cannot let down our people.
Israel s Channel 2 TV reported that international mediators involved in talks with the kidnappers had given up, saying negotiations were going nowhere. An Egyptian official concurred that talks with Hamas officials in Gaza were on hold, but insisted negotiations were still taking place with Hamas leaders in Syria.
Egyptian officials said their government asked Hamas to release the soldier and deployed 2,500 extra soldiers along the border with Gaza to prevent an influx of Palestinians if Israel invaded. Egypt also imposed a nighttime curfew on residents along the border.
Egypt s intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, urged Hamas Syria-based leader, Khaled Mashaal, to push for Shalit s release, the officials said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
The crisis touched off by the soldier s capture has caused widespread alarm among Arab countries worried about a flare-up in Israeli-Palestinian tensions.
Arab countries, worried about Hamas ascendancy and especially the actions of its more militant wings, appeared to be trying to support Abbas as he worked to isolate the more militant arm of Hamas and forge ties with the political wing of Hamas.
Abbas has been in touch with Arab leaders, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Saudi King Abdullah to discuss the latest crisis, said his aide, Nabil Abu Rdeneh.
Read more in later editions of The Blade and toledoblade.com.
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