At least 10 Palestinians, mostly youngsters, were killed after Israeli troops fired on hundreds of demonstrators protesting against the army's biggest ever operation in Gaza.
Palestinian witnesses said the scene of carnage had been sparked Wednesday after an Israeli helicopter appeared to have fired up to four missiles at around 1,000 protestors walking from the center of the poverty-striken town of Rafah toward the Tal al-Sultan neighbourhood in the adjoining refugee camp.
Police arrest a demonstrator on a Tel Aviv street May 19, 2004. Hundreds of left-wing activists staged demonstrations in Tel Aviv, in protest over the Rafah attack in which 10 Palestinian protestors were killed by the Israel Defense Forces. Photo by Havakuk Levison/Reuters
But Israeli officials, expressing regret for the loss of innocent life, said that the helicopter had only fired a warning shot and the deaths were likely caused by four tank shells.
Chief army spokeswoman General Ruth Yaron said "Operation Rainbow" would continue, despite calls by Palestinian premier Ahmed Qorei for an immediate cessation to a raid which has claimed 34 Palestinian lives since its launch early Tuesday.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat condemned what he called Israel's "atrocious crimes" in Rafah and called for the creation of an international observer force to protect his people.
Israel came in for a barrage of criticism from the international community with Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, condemning Israel's "reckless disregard for human life".
British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the operation "unacceptable and wrong", while Moscow slammed what it called a "disproportionate use of force".
US President George W. Bush called for "restraint" from Israel and the Palestinians, and said he expected "clarifications" from the Israeli government about the raid.
Fifty people were also injured, 20 of whom were in a critical condition.
While all the fatalities had not yet been identified, medics said that six were aged between 11 and 18, while a 19-year-old and a man aged 25 were among the dead.
Around 1,000 people were taking part in the demonstration, including many women and children, witnesses said.
They assembled outside Al-Awda mosque in the middle of Rafah and were approaching Tal al-Sultan when four devices were fired.
The first one hit the front of the protest, prompting people to scatter. As they tried to help victims, three more missiles were fired in quick succession, witnesses said.
In the immediate aftermath, a steady flow of panicked civilians could be seen carrying the wounded to the nearest ambulances.
Several children with their heads covered in blood were rushed away.
In a statement, the army denied that the casualties were the result of a helicopter strike but said one missile had been fired in an open area as a warning to the protesters, who included gunmen, to stop their march.
"As this did not deter the crowd and they continued to converge on the troops, machine-gun fire was opened towards a wall of an abandoned structure along the side of the road and then four tank shells were fired at this abandoned structure.
"It is possible that the casualties were a result of the tank fire on the abandoned structure. The details of the incident continue to be investigated."
The witnesses insisted there were no armed people mingling with protestors.
Four other Palestinians were also killed earlier Wednesday in Tal al-Sultan after being ordered by Israeli troops to surrender, Palestinian sources said.
One was a 13-year-old boy, while a man was killed by an Israeli tank shell as he carried a white flag, the sources said.
Israeli sources, however, insisted that the troops had not killed anyone who had voluntarily left their homes.
"We know of incidents of people coming out of their homes with white flags and then other Palestinians shooting them," said a military spokeswoman.
Witnesses said all males over the age of 16 were told by loudspeaker to come out of their homes with their hands in the air.
"Any armed person is a target for us and his house will be destroyed," they were warned.
Speaking in Madrid after news of the air strike broke, Palestinian premier Qorei called for an immediate halt to the Israeli operation.
"These crimes which are being committed against our people on a daily basis ... show and reflect that there is no desire for peace on the part of the Israeli government," said Qorei, in a joint press conference with his new Spanish counterpart Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
Arafat's chief advisor, Nabil Abu Rudeina, called on the UN Security Council to take firm action against Israel in a session expected later Wednesday in the wake of the strike.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's advisor Ranaan Gissin, however, defended the operation as vital to put an end to the smuggling of weapons from under the border with Egypt.
"We had intelligence information that not only are they going to smuggle ... long-range Katyusha rockets .. which later could be used to fire at will as a strategic weapon against our towns and villages," he told AFP.
Copyright © 2004AFP.