UN Rights Head Seeks Gaza Probe

APAn Israeli tank moving toward Gaza City on a combat mission on Sunday.��
The top UN human rights official called for independent investigations into possible war crimes committed by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip during a special session held Friday at the request of Russia and several other countries.

But Israeli forces stepped up its offensive Sunday, edging into the Gaza Strip's most populous area and killing at least 27 Palestinians.

Israeli troops and tanks pushed into the Gaza Strip on Dec. 27 in an offensive against Hamas that has killed 869 Palestinians, many of them civilians, Gaza medical officials said.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Friday called for Israel to be held accountable for any violations of international law.

Scores of people, including children, had been killed or wounded in "Israel's totally unacceptable strikes" against clearly marked UN facilities sheltering Gaza civilians, Pillay said in a speech to the special session of the UN Human Rights Council. Harm to civilians caused by rockets fired from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel was also "unacceptable."

Aharon Leshno-Yaar, Israel's ambassador in Geneva, said the Jewish state's offensive was directed at Hamas targets engaged in launching rockets into southern Israel and not at Palestinian civilians.

The United Nations session, called by Islamic and developing countries backed by Russia, China and Cuba, which enjoy a majority in the 47-member forum, was expected to adopt a resolution censuring Israel when the talks end Monday.

The session came days after President Dmitry Medvedev told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Russia was seriously concerned about civilian casualties from the operation in Gaza.

Nader Daoud / AP
Russians evacuated from Gaza Strip arriving in Jordan on Jan. 2. The last 21 Russians were evacuated Thursday.
"The Russian side expressed its serious concern over the numerous victims among the civilian population and the grave humanitarian situation," the Kremlin said in a statement describing a telephone conversation between the two men earlier in the week.

Medvedev also discussed the Gaza situation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last week, and both leaders stressed the need for an immediate cease-fire, RIA-Novosti reported.

Abbas thanked Medvedev for humanitarian aid sent by Russia, and the Russian president promised to send more. Earlier in the week, Russia sent 60 tons of humanitarian aid, including food, medicine, bedding and tents.

Alexander Saltanov, a deputy foreign minister and Medvedev's special envoy for the Middle East, flew to the region last week and has met several times with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to press for a cease-fire.

Olmert told his Cabinet in Jerusalem on Sunday that Israel was "getting close to achieving the goals it set for itself."

Russian diplomats, meanwhile, evacuated the last 21 Russian nationals from the Gaza Strip on Thursday.

"The evacuation is over," said Anastasia Fyodorova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Embassy in Israel, news agencies reported. Fyodorova said 47 Ukrainians were also evacuated.

The Russians and Ukrainians were part of a group of 250 foreigners ferried by bus to Jordan, from where a Russian Emergency Situations Ministry plane was to fly them to Moscow.

Russia evacuated the first group of 101 Russian citizens from Gaza on Jan. 2 and flew them to Moscow together with 76 nationals from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Moldova. At least 250 Russians lived in the Gaza Strip before the Israeli offensive began, many of them wives and children of Palestinians who studied at Russian universities. Some Russians decided to stay in Gaza.

(MT, Reuters)