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9 more die in Rafah offensive
Gaza - Troops killed at least nine Palestinians in Rafah on Thursday, as the Israeli army widened its offensive on the southern Gaza Strip town to two new neighbourhoods, defying fierce international criticism.
Initial accounts said two were killed when an Israeli tank fired a shell at a large crowd of Palestinians who were coming out of a graveyard. There were no other injuries.
The tank, stationed at the main entrance to Rafah's al-Barazil neighbourhood, opened fire after the crowd buried Palestinians killed on Wednesday and on Thursday morning, witnesses said, adding they saw the bodies of two people lying on the ground and not moving.
An Israeli army spokesperson said he spoke to field commanders who told him they knew of no tanks shells fired in the area and believed the explosion was not linked to the Israeli army.
He said, however, he would continue to check the report, which came a day after Israel was harshly criticised for firing tank shells at a mass protest march in Rafah, killing 10 demonstrators.
Helicopters killed three people
The Israeli army had said the shells, meant as a warning, were not aimed directly at the crowd, but it issued a new order forbidding tank crews to fire shells as a means of deterrence.
Earlier on Thursday, Israeli Apache helicopters killed three people and injured four others when they fired six missiles at what the Israeli army said were groups of armed militants battling the troops.
Two more militants were killed later in ground fighting, while Israel snipers shot dead two civilians, one of them when he climbed on to the roof of his house to fetch water, holding a plastic container apparently mistaken for a weapon.
The other was shot as he moved from one house to another, witnesses said.
Thursday's deaths brought to 44 the number of Palestinians killed in Rafah since the offensive, codenamed "Operation Rainbow", began early on Tuesday: twenty Palestinians were killed on Tuesday and 15 on Wednesday, the last one a militant who was shot dead shortly before midnight while exchanging fire with Israeli soldiers.
The offensive initially focused on the western Tel Sultan neighbourhood, but Israeli armoured columns began moving into the al-Barazil and al-Sallam neighbourhoods in eastern Rafah overnight.
Troops demolished 10 houses
Residents reported heavy gunbattles between local militants and Israeli troops and said hundreds of people were seen fleeing their homes.
They said the troops demolished 10 houses in al-Barazil and al-Sallam on Thursday, including the house of a local Islamic Jihad leader, Sheikh Nafez Azzam, who is in hiding elsewhere in the Gaza Strip.
Israel says the controversial offensive in Rafah is aimed at rooting out tunnels used to smuggle in arms and ammunition under the adjacent Egyptian border, and to arrest the smugglers and detain militants. - Sapa-dpa
Edited by Iaine Harper