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Rice Expands Mideast Mission Amid Gaza Crisis


The State Department has confirmed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has added Egypt to the trip to the Middle East and Europe she makes next week. The crisis over rocket firings from Hamas-controlled Gaza into Israel is expected to loom large in her talks in Egypt, and later with Israeli and Palestinian officials. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Rice is expected to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit in Cairo next Tuesday in a newly-added stop on the trip reflecting growing U.S. apprehension over the situation in Gaza.

Israeli air strikes into Gaza, retaliating for rocket firings into Israeli towns near the coastal strip, have killed more than 30 people including Palestinian civilians along with militants in the last two days.

Rhetorical exchanges between Israel and Hamas leaders who control Gaza have also escalated, with Israeli warnings of larger retaliatory actions including a possible ground offensive to quell the rocket fire.

The Bush administration rejects any dialogue with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization, though Egypt does speak to the group.

U.S. officials would like to see Egypt try harder to curb arms smuggling from its territory into Gaza, which is reported lately to include Iranian-made artillery rockets being launched at Israel in addition to homemade Palestinian missiles.

Briefing reporters Friday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said Egypt has an important role to play in connection with the Gaza crisis, the fundamental cause of which is he said Hamas and its support, if not direct role, in the rocketing of Israel:

"You've heard from the Secretary [Rice] as well as from others about our clear insistence that these rocket attacks stop," he said. "They are a situation that that is absolutely unacceptable. They are not aimed at anything other than randomly targeting innocent civilians in Israel. They do nothing to serve the interests of the people in Gaza."

Casey reiterated that while United States supports Israel's right to self-defense, it also urges Israeli leaders to consider the consequences their actions may have on the humanitarian situation in Gaza and regional peace efforts.

After her stop in Egypt, Rice is to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah to try to preserve the momentum of negotiations launched at last November's Annapolis conference.

She flies later in the week to Brussels for a NATO foreign ministers meeting likely to be dominated by discussion of Kosovo and Afghanistan.

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