UN chief relieved about Gaza, urges Israel withdrawal
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By Louis Charbonneau
BEIRUT, Jan 17 (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Saturday he was relieved about an Israeli ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and urged the Jewish state to withdraw all of its troops as soon as possible.
"I am relieved that the Israeli government has decided to cease hostilities as of midnight GMT," Ban told reporters. "This should be the first step leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza," he said, adding that he wanted the withdrawal "as soon as possible".
He said that Hamas militants also needed to do their part to bring an end to the violence by halting their rocket attacks against southern Israel.
"Hamas militants must stop firing rockets now," he said.
Ban said that humanitarian access for the people of the Gaza Strip was the top priority and the United Nations was ready to act immediately.
"Any durable solution must include the reopening of the (Gaza border) crossings and the prevention of illicit trafficking in arms," he said.
Ban flies to Damascus on Sunday to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before heading to the Egyptian Red Sea city of Sharm el-Sheikh for a summit meeting on aid and reconstruction efforts for Gaza hosted by Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak.
Israel accuses Syria and Iran of supporting and arming Hamas, an accusation they deny.
Ban said he and European leaders including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel would discuss "how to make this ceasefire durable and sustainable".
One of the priorities, he said, was ending the smuggling of weapons to Hamas, many of which are transferred via tunnels under the Egyptian border with Gaza.
"We will also seriously consider to bring this Middle East peace process back (on) track, particularly as we are expecting a new U.S. administration in just a couple of days," he said.
Ban has been calling for an immediate ceasefire since the Israeli offensive against Hamas began on Dec. 27. He is nearing the end of a week-long tour of the Middle East during which he has criticized both Israel and Hamas for ignoring a Jan. 8 U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire.
He has also criticized Israel for the many civilians killed during its military campaign and for firing on several U.N. facilities in Gaza. He has described the deadly attacks on U.N. sites as outrageous and demanded they be investigated.
Ban was asked whether he thought the United Nations and his recent trips to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon had helped put pressure the Jewish state into calling a halt to its assault on Gaza.
"This is the result of joint diplomatic efforts," Ban said. He specifically thanked Mubarak, Sarkozy, Brown and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan for their efforts in helping to resolve the crisis. (Editing by Myra MacDonald)
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