Sakher Abu El Oun
GAZA CITY, June 28, 2006 (AFP) – Israel sent ground forces into Gaza before dawn Wednesday and knocked out bridges and a power station from the air in an assault to try to save a teenage soldier held by Palestinian fighters.
Much of the Gaza Strip was plunged into darkness after night-time air strikes on the plant and three bridges that aimed to prevent militants moving across the territory.
Flames poured into the night sky and the sound of shelling and gunfire from combat helicopters could be heard as troops in tanks, armoured cars and bulldozers moved into southern Gaza where the missing serviceman was believed to be held.
Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said on CNN that Israel was "left without a choice" in the face of inaction by the Palestinian leadership to rescue 19-year-old corporal Gilad Shalit.
"The Israeli offensive in Gaza is intended to bring Gilad Shalit home," Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told public radio. "We do not intend to reoccupy the Gaza Strip or to make the Palestinian population suffer."
It was the first major ground offensive against Gaza since Israel pulled settlers and troops from the impoverished coastal strip last year in a highly controversial operation that ended a 38-year occupation.
No casualties were reported in the incursion, which followed intensive mediation efforts to free Shalit after his abduction in an attack Sunday that also killed two Israeli soldiers and two militants.