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Israel PM poised to announce halt to Gaza offensive

Israel PM poised to announce halt to Gaza offensive TEL AVIV: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was poised to announce a unilateral ceasefire to halt Israel's largest-ever assault on Gaza on Saturday even as troops attacked the territory from land, air and sea.

Olmert announced that Israel will silence its guns after a security council meeting, but will order troops to return fire if they are attacked, a senior government official told media on condition of anonymity.

A defence ministry official later said that troops would remain inside the fenced-off coastal strip for several days before pulling back.

"Maybe there will be a salvo of rockets in the first day or so (after the truce) but after that the army will respond to any attacks," he told media.

The declaration would allow Israel to conclude its massive offensive without entering into an agreement with the Islamist Hamas movement, which has ruled Gaza since June 2007 and is sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state.

But despite three weeks of heavy fighting in which more than 1,200 Palestinians have been killed, Hamas has vowed to battle on until Israel withdraws all forces from the enclave and reopens Gaza's border crossings.

Israeli warships and tanks, dug in on the outskirts of Gaza City, kept lobbying shells into the densely populated urban area, while to the north in Beit Lahiya a UN-run school was set ablaze by bombs.

Two children, five and seven years old, were killed and another dozen people wounded in the attack, in which burning embers rained down on a school where some 1,600 people were sheltering, setting parts of the building alight.

Their mother, one of the wounded, was in critical condition after her legs were blown off in the explosion, according to Gaza medics and UN officials.

Rights groups have accused Israel of using phosphorous bombs, which are designed to send up a smokescreen on open battlefields, in crowded civilian areas. Israel has said its weapons are all legal under international law.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Saturday called the attack "outrageous," pointing out that it was not the first time UN schools have been struck by Israeli forces. Gaza's main UN food aid compound was also hit by an Israeli tank shell.

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