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    Gaza power plant shuts down; city blacked out

    GAZA CITY (AP): _ Gaza City plunged into darkness and residents marched in a candlelight parade to protest an Israeli blockade that cut off fuel to the territory's only power plant, leading to warnings of a quick and deadly humanitarian crisis.

    Electricity officials shut down the plant just before 8 p.m. (1800 GMT) Sunday, Gaza Energy Authority head Kanan Obeid said. TV crews and reporters were invited to witness the blackout.

    Health Ministry official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain warned that the fuel cutoff would cause a health catastrophe. ``We have the choice to either cut electricity on babies in the maternity ward or heart surgery patients or stop operating rooms,'' he said.

    Gaza bakeries stopped operating because of the blockade, bakers said, because they had neither power nor flour.

    In addition to the fuel it receives from Israel to power its electrical plant, Gaza gets most of its electricity directly from Israel. Israeli officials said that supply would not be affected.

    Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel charged that Hamas created an artificial emergency, though Gaza continues to receive 75 percent of its normal electricity supplies. The blackout ``is a Hamas ploy to pretend there is some kind of crisis to attract international sympathy,'' he told The Associated Press.

    Four hours after the blackout, Hamas claimed that five patients died because of the cutoff of electricity in hospitals. Officials in the Health Ministry speaking on condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to speak to the press denied any deaths were caused by the power outage.

    Israel was trying to find a way to stop rocket fire into its southern communities. The barrages have virtually paralyzed life there since a spike in fighting last week following an Israeli anti-rocket operation in Gaza.

    A confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday that the reduction in electricity and fuel supplies may be working, since the number of rockets fired Monday dropped considerably. The army said five were fired on Sunday, down from 53 in the two previous days.

    But Vice Premier Haim Ramon implied that Israel would not relieve the pressure on Gaza in the near future.

    ``This is a tough battle and difficult battle and strong battle,'' Vice Premier Haim Ramon told Army Radio. ``We need patience and determination for this struggle.''

    Ramon implied that Israel was not at this point considering a broad military operation in Gaza to counter the rocket fire, saying such an option would be ``very problematic.''

    Israel sealed all crossings into Gaza last week in response to the fighting, cutting off fuel, food and medicine. Several weeks ago Israel reduced the fuel supply as a pressure tactic.

    Late Sunday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appealed to Israel to lift the blockade, said Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh. Abbas effectively rules only the West Bank after Hamas expelled his forces from Gaza last June.

    Minutes after the power plant shutdown, Gaza residents started a candlelight march. Live Associated Press TV pictures showed dots of light moving slowly up a darkened main street.

    The Hamas-linked Popular Resistance Committees threatened to break the Israeli blockade by crashing through the border with Egypt ``by force.''

    Human rights groups condemned the fuel cutoff. The British group Oxfam called it ``ineffective as well as unlawful.'' Gisha, an Israeli group that has fought the fuel cutbacks in Israel's Supreme Court, said ``punishing Gaza's 1.5 million civilians does not stop the rocket fire; it only creates an impossible 'balance' of human suffering on both sides of the border.''

    Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, but many see Israel as still responsible, since it controls most land, sea and air access to the territory.

    Alon Ben-David, military analyst for Israel's Channel 10 TV, said Israel could not maintain the blockade for more than a few days. ``Israel understands that a humanitarian crisis is developing here,'' he said.

    Addressing the annual Herzliya Conference on security, the Israeli military commander, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, said his forces have exacted ``a heavy toll'' from the militants, but he admitted a solution to the rocket fire is not near. ``Even if it takes time, the goal will be achieved,'' he pledged.

    Late Sunday Israel carried out two airstrikes in Gaza City, Palestinian security said. One militant linked to Islamic Jihad was killed. The Israeli military said the target of the first one was a cart carrying rockets, and confirmed carrying out the second.

    The military said since last Tuesday, the start of the escalation, more than 200 rockets and mortars hit Israel. There have been no serious injuries over the past week, but residents of the Israeli towns have been traumatized by months of daily salvos.

    In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot and killed a wanted Palestinian militant of the Islamic Jihad group during a military operation early Monday, residents said. The army confirmed troops were operating in the area, and said a soldier was lightly wounded.



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