Archive for January, 2009

29th January
2009
written by englishnews

The US House of Representatives has passed President Barack Obama’s $825bn (£576bn) economic stimulus package.

Passed by 244 votes to 188, no Republicans backed the plan, saying it was too expensive and would not work.

It must now be approved by the Senate, where it could face stiff opposition as the Democrats have a slimmer majority.

After the vote, Mr Obama urged members of Congress not to “drag our feet or allow the same partisan differences to get in our way”.

The president has said his package, which he hopes to sign into law next month, would help create a favourable climate for American business to thrive.

The bill would cut taxes for people and businesses by $275bn, while pumping more than $540bn into a range of initiatives including road and bridge repair, increased unemployment benefits, investment in new technology and renovations to 10,000 schools. Look through this page for details on this topic.

Heated debate

Mr Obama has pledged to try to end partisan division in Washington, but the debate on how best to kick start the US economy has devolved into a bitter squabble along party lines, says the BBC’s Richard Lister in Washington.

President Obama said the economy can be turned around

In a heated debate, a succession of Republicans in Congress have condemned the stimulus package as a wasteful government spending exercise that will do little to create jobs.

They promoted their own bill, focussing more on tax cuts, which they said would create more jobs for half the investment.

But this was a battle they could not win in the House, where Democrats have a large majority.

It is slimmer in the Senate where Republicans could slow the bill’s progress, but Democrats are confident they can get the measure through there, and they have set a target for mid-February to have the bill on Mr Obama’s desk to be signed into law.

Failing to attract significant Republican support for the bill, our correspondent says, is a blow to Mr Obama’s hopes of forging a new consensus in Washington, at this time of economic crisis.

Greater accountability

Mr Obama said earlier workers were looking for “bold and swift” action from leaders, and called on businesses to play their part in economic recovery by creating jobs in a “favourable climate” started by government.

“I am confident that we are going to get it passed,” Mr Obama said.

The US “cannot afford inaction or delay”, he said after meeting business leaders at the White House.

Laying the blame for the economic crisis partially on a “sense of irresponsibility” on Wall Street and the government in Washington DC, he said corporate America had to take responsibility for its workers, but that Washington needed to provide leadership with the stimulus plan.

The president has said most of the money in his package would be used “immediately”, creating as many as 4m jobs – the vast majority in the private sector – and that there would be a greater measure of accountability.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who was sworn in on Monday, has the task of trying to get the US economy back in shape.

Meanwhile, Mr Obama attended his first Pentagon session with the joint chiefs of staff on Wednesday, telling them the military had carried out its missions under enormous pressure, and pledging his support to the troops.

Mr Obama, who campaigned on a promise to end the war in Iraq responsibly and withdraw troops next year, said his administration faces tough decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan.

28th January
2009
written by englishnews

Israeli airstrikes have targeted the Gaza Strip’s border with Egypt, as part of Israel’s response to an attack on one of its frontier patrols on Tuesday.

Residents near the town of Rafah fled as missiles hit tunnels through which Israel says militants smuggle arms.

The strikes came ahead of US envoy George Mitchell’s visit to promote a permanent Israel-Hamas ceasefire.

Both sides declared ceasefires on 17 and 18 January to end Israel’s three-week offensive on Gaza.

The land, air and sea assault killed about 1,300 Palestinians, including 400 children. Thirteen Israelis died.

It is not clear whether there were any casualties from the airstrikes, but the latest violence is a sign of just how fragile the truce is, says the BBC’s Bethany Bell in Jerusalem.

Push for peace

Israel had responded to Tuesday’s roadside bomb – which killed one soldier and wounded three – by immediately sending troops and tanks into Gaza backed by helicopters.

Footage of the jeep attack which killed an Israeli soldier

Ensuing fighting around the town of Khan Younis and the Kissufim border crossing left one Palestinian dead, medical sources said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert threatened further strikes, saying the incursion was merely an initial reaction and that Israel’s full response was still to come, Haaretz newspaper reported on its website.

Both Mr Mitchell and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana are in the region to push for peace talks.

Mr Mitchell, newly appointed by US President Barack Obama, is to hold talks with Mr Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, although correspondents say he is not expected to meet Hamas officials.

He has already held talks in Cairo about Egypt’s mediation efforts.

Israeli and Palestinian faction representatives have visited Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials since the ceasefires came into effect.

Hamas wants an end of Israel’s punishing blockade of Gaza. Israel wants a long-term ceasefire and curbs on Hamas rearming.

During Mr Mitchell’s visit, Israelis will want to hear what ideas the US has for advancing the peace process, as well as how Washington will tackle the Iranian nuclear issue, our correspondent says. But with Israeli elections due to take place in two weeks, it is likely the US envoy will spend much of his time listening, as Mr Obama has asked him to do, our correspondent adds.

Mr Mitchell’s visit is being seen by many Israelis as a sign of US engagement, and by others as a sign of pressure.

Tunnels working

The Gaza Strip’s southern frontier is peppered with tunnels into Egypt that were pummelled by air-strikes during Israel’s offensive.

One of Israel’s stated goals was to halt the smuggling of weapons – including rockets that were being fired against Israeli towns – into the coastal enclave through the network of tunnels.

But smuggling resumed shortly after the non-negotiated cease-fires were declared.

Residents along the border say food, fuel and other goods are moving through the several dozen tunnels that are still operational.

27th January
2009
written by englishnews

President Barack Obama has called for the US to become energy independent, saying its reliance on foreign oil and global warming posed threats.

Outlining his energy priorities, he said the country would not be held “hostage to dwindling resources, hostile regimes, and a warming planet”.

He called for greater fuel efficiency and an “energy economy” aimed at creating millions of jobs.

He also ordered a review of whether states can set car emission standards.

This challenges a Bush administration decision which favoured a national standard for vehicle pollution.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton picked Todd Stern – who took part in the Kyoto Protocol negotiations on climate change from 1997 to 1999 – as her envoy for climate change, the state department said.

Mr Stern, who served under former President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001, will be the Obama administration’s principal adviser on international climate policy and strategy as well as its chief climate negotiator.

“Containing climate change will require nothing less than transforming the global economy from a high-carbon to a low-carbon energy base,” said Mr Stern after Mrs Clinton announced his appointment.

“But done right, this can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and become a driver for economic growth in the 21st Century.”

Crossroads of history

At his first White House news conference since becoming president, Mr Obama said he would reverse America’s dependence on foreign oil while creating jobs, but warned there was no “quick fix”.

A customer at a petrol pump

“We will commit ourselves to steady, focused, pragmatic pursuit of an America that is freed from our energy dependence, and empowered by a new energy economy that puts millions of our citizens to work.”

He added: “Now is the time to meet the challenge of this crossroads of history, by choosing a future safer for our country, prosperous for our planet, and sustainable.”

Mr Obama ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review its refusal of a waiver which had previously allowed California to set its own – stricter – vehicle emission and fuel efficiency standards.

He said California had taken bold moves in implementing the standards.

Mr Obama said: “The days of Washington dragging its heels are over.

“My administration will not deny facts. We will be guided by them.”

His statement that the US would lead on climate change was a clear swipe at his predecessor’s sceptical view of global warming, says the BBC’s James Coomarasamy in Washington.

Energy efficiency drive

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had asked Mr Obama to reverse the Bush administration’s insistence on a single, national standard.

California wants a 30% reduction in motor vehicle greenhouse gas emissions by 2016, achieved by improving fuel efficiency standards.

President Obama also ordered the transportation department to come up with new short-term rules on how carmakers can improve fuel efficiency.

A 2007 law required that new cars and trucks produced by 2020 obtain 35 miles per gallon of fuel (about 15km/litre).

However, then-President George W Bush did not put in place the regulations to enable the law to be carried out.

Emissions from car exhaust (file photo)

The new rules Mr Obama wants to put in place would mean the new standard is reached by 2011, the New York Times said.

The president also announced plans to make all federal government buildings more energy efficient, and pledged to cut families’s energy bills by “weatherising” 2.5 million homes.

He also said the US would double its capacity for “green” energy generation, from sources such as wind, sun, and biofuels, over the next three years.

More than 3,000 miles of transmission lines would be established to transmit the energy.

In the European Union, a recently agreed climate package set out average emission targets for the whole car industry of 120g of CO2 per kilometre by 2012 for new cars, compared with current levels of 160g/km.

The EU target for 2020 is 95g/km. But CO2 emissions vary from car to car, and manufacturers have been given until 2015 to meet their specific targets for each model.

26th January
2009
written by englishnews

Bolivian President Evo Morales has claimed victory in a referendum on a new constitution aimed at improving conditions for the indigenous majority.

Addressing supporters outside the presidential palace, he said the result marked the birth of a new Bolivia.

Exit polls for some TV stations put the yes vote at about 60%.

The new constitution gives autonomy to indigenous peoples and boosts state control of the economy, but is opposed by many of the traditional elite.

Many mixed-race people in the fertile eastern lowlands rejected the charter and four of Bolivia’s nine provinces had a majority no vote, according to the exit polls.

Conservative leaders in one district accused President Morales of planning to impose a totalitarian regime, but he was undeterred.

Despite the yes vote, there is likely to be continued opposition to the constitution as it goes through parliament, says the BBC’s Candace Piette in La Paz.

‘New era’

“Brothers and sisters, the colonial state ends here,” President Morales, an Aymara Indian, told crowds in front of the presidential palace in La Paz after results emerged.

“Now Bolivia is being re-founded!” he said.

“Here we begin to reach true equality for all Bolivians.”

Bolivian President Evo Morales

The Bolivian leader has followed his closest allies, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, in rewriting their countries’ constitutions to extend their rule, tackle inequalities and exert greater control over natural resources, observers say.

Support for Mr Morales was highest in the western highlands where Indians are a majority.

“Now is starting a new era in which indigenous people will be the citizens of this country. I think this is the most important part of this constitution,” said Elisa Canqui, who represents one of the Indian communities in La Paz.

Opponents

Many Bolivians of European or mixed-race descent strongly oppose the constitution, but the head of an international monitoring team, Raul Lagos, said voting had been largely peaceful.

Opponents concentrated in Bolivia’s eastern provinces, which hold rich gas deposits, argue that the new constitution would create two classes of citizenship – putting indigenous people ahead of others.

The original draft of the constitution was more radical but Mr Morales made concessions after violent protests against his rule, including a promise that he would not try to win a third term in 2014.

Under pressure from wealthy ranchers, who feared their farms would be broken up and handed over to the poor, Mr Morales also revised the charter so that limits on land holdings will only apply to future land sales.

Final results are expected in about 10 days.

The referendum will be followed by elections for president, vice-president and Congress in December.

25th January
2009
written by englishnews

Hurricane-force winds hitting northern Spain have brought down the roof of a sports hall near Barcelona, killing four children, local officials say.

Eleven people died in other, separate incidents in Spain and south-western France as the fiercest storm in a decade blew in from the Atlantic.

Torrential rains and winds of up to 172km/h (107mph) are being reported.

More than 1.5 million homes in France suffered power cuts while road and rail links were blocked and airports closed.

The impact of the storm has been felt from the Channel Isles to Barcelona, but the strongest winds and heaviest rain were concentrated on the French south-west.

 

Although this type of active low pressure system is fairly common in winter, BBC meteorologist Alex Deakin says, Saturday’s storm is being described as the most damaging since that of December 1999 which killed 88 people.

The storm is tracking south-eastwards and is set to clear the south-east coast of France during Saturday evening.

It should then head towards northern Italy and the Adriatic, although is unlikely to be as damaging here.

Children killed

The sports hall partially collapsed in the town of Sant Boi de Llobregat, Catalonia, with between 20 and 30 youngsters inside, officials said.

David Hodge) 

The youngsters had gathered to play baseball but the fierce winds drove them to take shelter in a small covered area for spectators, made of concrete, with a corrugated iron roof.

Moments later, the high winds caused the structure to collapse.

Local people and fire-fighters helped free the survivors from the rubble but three children aged between nine and 12 died at the scene, and a fourth child died later in hospital. More than a dozen others received treatment for injures.

In other incidents

  • In the Landes region of south-western France, near Bordeaux, a driver was killed by a falling tree, a 78-year-old man was killed by flying debris and a third man, 75, was crushed by a tree
  • A woman, 73, died in France’s Gironde region when the storm cut electricity powering her breathing machine
  • A woman was crushed by a door in Burgos, Spain
  • A collapsing wall killed a woman and a falling tree killed a male park employee in the Barcelona area; a man, 60, was killed elsewhere in the Catalonia region
  • In Galicia, a policeman was killed by a falling tree as he directed traffic in Burela and a sailor from a cargo ship died when the vessel got in trouble off the coast
  • A falling wall crushed a man in Aigues de Busot, near Alicante in the south-east of Spain

Tens of thousands of homes have been left without power in Spain.

‘Ghost town’

French weather agencies had forecast the storm but it affected a wider area than expected. A state of “red alert” was declared in nine departements.

The storm caused havoc from the Dordogne area to the Pyrenees. Torrential rains caused flooding in some areas prompting thousands of calls to the emergency services.

The force of the storm also led to the closure of airports in Bordeaux, Pau, Biarritz and Toulouse, and train services also ground to a halt, leaving several hundred passengers stranded in stations overnight.

Mark Richardson, a BBC News website reader visiting Bordeaux from the UK, writes that the city ground to a standstill following the storm overnight and felt like a ghost town.

Another reader, Simon Ritchie, witnessed the damage wrought by the storm in the French town of Rodez.

“This morning, I awoke to the sound of very strong winds and lashing rain or hail,” he writes.

“I looked out of my kitchen’s skylight window to see scaffolding and sheets or corrugated iron blowing of the adjacent cathedral. One such sheet blew about 50 yards from the tower and landed on a car below, smashing it in completely.

“People were screaming on the street below, and bits of masonry and scaffolding continued to fall.”

22nd January
2009
written by englishnews

US President Barack Obama is expected to sign an executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay prison within a year.

A draft order circulated on Wednesday also called for halting military trials in the prison, where terror suspects had been held for years without trial.

Separate orders are expected to ban abusive interrogations and review the detention of terror suspects.

On his first full day in office on Wednesday, Mr Obama issued orders on government ethics and transparency.

The measures included curbs on lobbying and a pay freeze for senior White House staff. Federal employees will have to sign up to new ethics procedures.

Later Mr Obama and his advisers are expected to discuss the global economic downturn affecting the US and also the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Sworn again

Late on Wednesday, a panel in the House of Representatives gave its support to a $358bn government spending package, giving the first post-inaugural backing to the Democrats’ economic plans.

Barack and Michelle Obama as the oath was administered on Tuesday

Mr Obama – who was sworn in as America’s new president on Tuesday – said he was beginning “a new era of openness” in government.

He was sworn in for a second time late on Wednesday, because one word had been out of order when the oath was first administered.

The White House said the ceremony had been repeated in an “abundance of caution”.

On Wednesday, the US Senate confirmed the appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.

Senators earlier approved six Cabinet members, including Janet Napolitano as homeland security secretary and Steven Chu as energy secretary. Several other positions are still to be confirmed.

Trials suspended

The draft executive order on the Guantanamo Bay in Cuba was circulated by the Obama administration on Wednesday.

President Obama in the Oval Office with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel

“The detention facilities at Guantanamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order,” the draft read, according to Reuters.

It says anyone still in detention when the prison is shut “shall be returned to their home country, released, transferred to a third country or transferred to another United States detention facility”.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a White House official said the order would be signed on Thursday.

Mr Obama has repeatedly promised to close the Guantanamo Bay, where some 250 inmates accused of having links to terrorism remain and 21 cases are pending.

On Wednesday, judges suspended several of the military trials of terror suspects at Guantanamo, at Mr Obama’s request. One trial involved several men accused in the 11 September attacks in the US.

The legal process has been widely criticised because the US military acts as jailer, judge and jury, the BBC’s Jonathan Beale reports from Guantanamo.

However, closing Guantanamo Bay will not be easy, he says. Questions remain over where those charged will be tried and where those freed can be safely sent.

On Thursday, Mr Obama is also expected to issue a separate executive banning abusive interrogation techniques such as waterboarding – a form of simulating drowning used by the CIA.

The president is also expected to order a review of America’s detention policies, a White House official said.

21st January
2009
written by englishnews

Barack Obama has requested the suspension of all military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, in his first major act as the new US president.

The request would halt proceedings in 21 pending cases, including one against five men accused of plotting the 11 September 2001 attacks.

The halt would give Mr Obama time to review the tribunal process.

The new president is beginning his first working day by meeting economic advisers and top military commanders.

Most of his cabinet is in place but several key posts are still to be confirmed.

Mr Obama himself attended inaugural balls late into Tuesday night, as America marked the arrival of its 44th president and first African-American leader.

‘Ideals versus safety’

Barack Obama has repeatedly promised to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, where some 250 inmates accused of links to terrorism remain.

Just hours after taking the oath of office on the steps of the US Capitol, he moved to halt the controversial process of military tribunals.

Guantanamo Bay camp at sunrise, 19 November

The two-page document, ordered jointly by Mr Obama and the US Department of Defense, seeks a 120-day suspension of trials and will be heard by two tribunal judges on Wednesday.

The delay would “permit the newly inaugurated president and his administration time to review the military commission process”, the document said.

The legal process has been widely criticised because the US military acts as jailer, judge and jury, says the BBC’s Jonathan Beale in Washington.

And in his inaugural address on Tuesday, Mr Obama emphasised the idea of respect for justice and the rights of the individual, rejecting “as false the choice between our safety and our ideals”.

Cabinet hearings

On his first full day in the Oval Office, Mr Obama is due to meet top national security

officials as he takes over as commander-in-chief.

He was also due to conduct a video conference with US military chiefs in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials said.

In his inaugural address, the new president spoke of his desire to usher in a new era of peace.

“We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan,” he pledged.

The US Senate has already approved six members of his Cabinet, including Janet Napolitano as homeland security secretary and Steven Chu as energy secretary.

However, Hillary Clinton’s approval as secretary of state was postponed after a Republican senator demanded a debate beforehand about foreign donations to a foundation headed by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

That debate is due on Wednesday and Mrs Clinton’s nomination is now expected to be confirmed in a vote immediately afterwards.

Timothy Geithner, the nominee to head the treasury department, is due to face the Senate finance committee on Wednesday to explain his initial failure to pay payroll taxes he owed while working for the International Monetary Fund.

20th January
2009
written by englishnews

Rebuilding the Gaza Strip after Israel’s three-week offensive will cost billions of dollars, the UN has warned.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been left homeless and 400,000 people still have no running water, it says.

Reports say UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is travelling to Gaza on Tuesday to inspect the damage.

A fragile ceasefire between Israel and Hamas militants is holding, allowing many Palestinians to return home to assess the damage.

Big questions

Israel called a ceasefire on Saturday, saying it had met its war aims. Hamas later declared its own truce, with one of its leaders claiming a “great victory” over Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he wants troops to leave Gaza “as quickly as possible” and some have already left.

Anonymous Israeli officials, quoted by Associated Press news agency, said the withdrawal would be completed before US President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration on Tuesday.

But analysts say big questions remain, such as who will police Gaza’s southern border with Egypt and how much power Hamas still has.

Hamas has said it will hold fire for a week to give Israel time to withdraw its forces from the Gaza Strip.

Israel launched its offensive on 27 December to stop Hamas militants firing rockets into Israel.

Palestinian medical sources say at least 1,300 Palestinians were killed and 5,500 injured during the conflict. Thirteen Israelis were killed.

19th January
2009
written by englishnews

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he wants Israeli troops to leave Gaza “as quickly as possible” after Israel’s three-week offensive.

Troops began pulling out after Israel said it had met its war aims and declared a unilateral ceasefire.

Hamas later declared its own truce with one of its leaders claiming a “great victory” over Israel.

As Gaza enjoyed a second quiet night, local sources said the conflict had left 4,000 buildings destroyed.

A further 20,000 buildings were severely damaged, Gaza municipal officials said after an initial count.

Critical of tactics

Correspondents say the ceasefire in Gaza remains fragile.

Palestinian militants fired about 20 rockets over the border after the Israeli ceasefire announcement, and Israel responded with an air attack.

Surrounded by an array of European political leaders, some of whom were highly critical of Israel’s tactics in the conflict with Hamas, the Israeli prime minister said his country was not interested in staying in the Gaza Strip.

“We didn’t set out to control Gaza, we don’t want to remain in Gaza and we intend on leaving Gaza as quickly as possible,” he said.

The European leaders had travelled to Israel to lend their support to the ceasefires.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the opening of the crossings into Gaza was important to “make possible a resumption of the talks that are necessary for a permanent peace”.

Boasting of victory, Ismail Haniya, the top Hamas leader in Gaza, said Israel had “failed to achieve its goals”.

In a speech broadcast on Hamas TV station, he said: “Despite all the wounds, our people didn’t surrender, but demonstrated a legendary perseverance.”

Hamas said it would hold fire for a week to give Israel time to withdraw its forces from the Gaza Strip.

“Our demand is the withdrawal of the enemy forces from the Gaza Strip within a week, along with the opening of all the crossings for the entry of humanitarian aid, food and other necessities for our people in the Gaza Strip,” said Hamas’s deputy chief in Syria, Moussa Abou Marzouk.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s Paul Wood entered northern Gaza via the Erez crossing as part of the first group of journalists to gain independent access to the Strip from Israel.

He says that in the town of Beit Lahiya he saw the first real destruction – streets churned up by Israeli heavy armour, overturned cars, a lake of raw sewage in the street and a mosque left as a charred ruin.

Hamas officials stopped the BBC from filming at one site where bodies were still being removed – a sign, perhaps, that there had been some kind of military target nearby, our correspondent says.

The BBC’s Bethany Bell, on the Israeli side of the border with Gaza, said Israeli helicopters and drones had been flying overhead and Israeli troops were on high alert on Sunday.

Many people are hoping that a ceasefire will last, but no-one on either side of the border will be surprised if the fighting starts up again, she adds.

At least 1,300 Palestinians, according to Palestinian sources, and 13 Israelis have been killed since Israel launched its offensive on 27 December.

Palestinian medical sources say at least 95 bodies have been pulled from the rubble since Israel halted its offensive.

The BBC’s Christian Fraser, in Rafah on the Gaza-Egypt border, says many of the 40,000 people who fled the town during the conflict, were returning to pick through the ruins of their homes on Sunday.

People are salvaging whatever they can, our correspondent says – even the broken bricks and corrugated iron are taken away on donkeys.

Hamas is still very much in control of the town, our correspondent adds. One fighter told the BBC their determination and ability to fight was undiminished.

Earlier on Sunday, heads of state from across Europe travelled to Egypt for a summit with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and UN chief Ban Ki-moon to try to shore up the ceasefire.

Speaking after the talks, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he would be sending a team to assess the immediate humanitarian needs of the people in Gaza.

“Within 10 days, I think we’ll be able to make an assessment report and we will issue a humanitarian urgent, a humanitarian flash appeal.”

18th January
2009
written by englishnews

Israel has begun a unilateral ceasefire in Gaza, three weeks after launching a full-scale assault against Hamas.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel had achieved its goals and Hamas – which has been firing rockets at Israel – had been defeated.

But he said troops would remain in Gaza for now. Hamas said it would not accept one Israeli soldier in Gaza.

Correspondents report the first quiet night in the Strip in 22 days after the ceasefire began at 0200 (0000 GMT).

Nearly 1,200 Palestinians have been killed since the violence began on 27 December. Thirteen Israelis have died.

The US has welcomed the ceasefire, saying it “expects that all parties will cease attacks and hostile actions immediately”.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed relief, saying the ceasefire should be “the first step leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza”.

‘Goals achieved’

The Israeli prime minister’s announcement came in a televised address following a late-night cabinet meeting.

Israel’s “goals have been achieved, and even more”, Mr Olmert said.

Hamas was badly damaged both militarily and in terms of government infrastructure; rocket factories and dozens of smuggling tunnels had been destroyed, he said.

But the success of the ceasefire depended on Hamas, he said.

Troops would remain in Gaza for the time being and if Hamas held fire, the military would “consider pulling out of Gaza at a time that befits us”.

If militant rocket fire into Israel continued, Israel would respond with force, the Israeli leader added.

A Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhum, condemned the move. Hamas could not “accept the presence of a single [Israeli] soldier in Gaza”, he said.

Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, said Israel had failed in its objectives

Israel must withdraw completely, lift its economic blockade of Gaza and open border crossings, the spokesman said.

BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen says the question now is whether Hamas decides to lick its wounds and regroup – or whether it gambles on dragging Israel into a war of attrition.

Hamas representatives have been taking part in talks in Cairo, brokered by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, aimed at reaching a bilateral deal.

Egypt will on Sunday host a summit, attended by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, the UN chief and several EU leaders, aimed at securing a permanent truce.

Minutes before Mr Olmert spoke, a rocket was fired from Gaza, a BBC producer in Gaza said.

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