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Israeli troops enter Gaza to rescue abducted soldier

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—Israeli tanks and troops moved into the southern Gaza Strip early Wednesday in an effort to rescue a soldier who was abducted three days ago by Hamas militants and spirited into the densely populated Palestinian area.

The rescue mission signaled an end to diplomatic efforts to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, and the start of what could be a prolonged and deadly battle to find him.

An Israeli military spokesman said the operation was "to get our soldier out."

Israeli planes bombed two bridges and a power station in advance of troops entering Gaza. The incursion came less than a year after Israel ended its 38-year military occupation of the area.

Palestinians and Israelis had been preparing for fighting since Shalit was abducted during a Hamas-led commando raid on Sunday that killed two other Israeli soldiers.

Israel had moved scores of tanks and hundreds of soldiers into positions along the Gaza borders. On Tuesday, Palestinian militants built towering barriers of dirt and concrete along roads in northern Gaza to slow any invasion.

Egypt, whose diplomats have been working to defuse the crisis, dispatched more than 1,000 troops to its border with Gaza in case Palestinians tried to flee.

The military struck first at the bridges in a bid to cut off possible escape routes for Shalit's kidnappers, who are believed to be holding the soldier in southern Gaza. Tanks then entered Gaza near Kerem Shalom, an Israeli kibbutz close to the Egyptian border where Shalit was captured early Sunday morning.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had warned the Palestinians for days that he would order the military to attack if diplomacy failed to win Shalit's freedom. A rescue operation could be risky, however: The last time Israel tried to free a soldier whom Hamas militants had kidnapped, in 1994, the captive was killed in the assault.

Even as the Israelis moved to find Shalit, another crisis was brewing in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank, where the Popular Resistance Committees, one of the groups that led Sunday's attack, claimed it was holding an Israeli settler.

The Israeli military said Eliyahu Asheri, an 18-year-old West Bank settler, had been missing since Sunday, but it couldn't confirm that he'd been kidnapped.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israel not to take any rash steps.

"There really needs to be an effort now to try and calm the situation, not let the situation escalate, and give diplomacy a chance to work to try to get this release," Rice said during a diplomatic trip to Pakistan.

The Israeli assault came only hours after Palestinian leaders ended their own internal feuding by agreeing to a plan that would curb attacks on Israel and perhaps clear the way for a unity government between Hamas and its Fatah party rival.

The agreement, which accepts the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, fell short of meeting international demands that Hamas explicitly recognize Israel and renounce violence.

The deal between Fatah and Hamas was announced at a hastily called news conference in Gaza City.

The outgrowth of a political platform that Palestinian prisoners from Hamas, Fatah and other leading factions put forward, the agreement calls for establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. It also calls for ending attacks inside the 1967 borders of Israel.

Some said the deal was an implicit recognition of Israel's right to exist alongside a new Palestinian state. Hamas lawmaker Ziad Dayeh told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the group was "recognizing the existence of Israel without recognizing the legitimacy of Israel."

Comments from other leading Hamas figures suggested otherwise. Khalid Abu Hilal, a senior Hamas leader, said Hamas would accept an Israeli nation if the United States wanted to cede part of its land to create a Jewish nation in North America.

"Our principles and statements are clear," he said. "We will never recognize Israel. We will recognize Israel only if it is far away."

Hilal also made clear that the language curbing attacks in Israel didn't mean an end to such assaults: "We are still able to resist in other areas."

While the deal might do little to end the international isolation that's hobbled the Palestinians since they installed Hamas as the ruling political party in January, it could ease some of the Hamas-Fatah fighting, which has claimed dozens of lives and raised the once-unthinkable specter of a Palestinian civil war.

If Abbas accepts the deal, as expected, it would end his threat to put the issue before voters next month in a referendum that could create even greater internal friction.

"I don't want to paint a romantic picture, but signing this document is a significant step in ending the crisis we are in now," said Fatah leader Samir al Masharawi, who helped work on the deal.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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