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US Envoy Calls for Consolidation of Gaza Cease-Fire

The Obama administration's new U.S. Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, is calling for a strengthening of the cease-fire in Gaza. Mitchell arrived in Israel Wednesday as part of his efforts to boost the fragile truce.

As Israel prepared to receive the new American envoy on Wednesday, its military launched air strikes on tunnels in southern Gaza along the border with Egypt.

The attack was yet another sign of how fragile the cease-fire remains. Speaking in Cairo before leaving for Israel, U.S. envoy George Mitchell called for a lasting peace deal.

"It is of critical importance that the cease-fire be extended and consolidated and we support Egypt's continuing efforts in that regard," he said.

In Egypt, the U.S. envoy met with President Hosni Mubarak and discussed Egypt's efforts to secure an agreement to end hostilities. Mitchell's mission is to hear from leaders in the region before reporting his findings to President Barack Obama.

Mitchell said the new U.S. administration is committed to vigorously pursuing lasting peace and stability.

"The decision by President Obama to dispatch me to come to this region less than one week after his inauguration is a clear and tangible evidence of this commitment," he said.

Mitchell's agenda Wednesday included meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Shimon Peres. On Thursday, he is due in the West Bank for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas officials say about 1,300 people - many of them women and children - were killed in Israel's 22-day assault on militants in Gaza. Israel and some international journalists say the figure has not been independently verified. The fighting stopped on January 18 after both sides declared separate cease-fires.

Israel's air strikes on tunnels, a Palestinian bomb attack that killed one Israeli soldier along the Gaza border on Tuesday and an Israeli incursion into Gaza that followed, are raising concerns that a full-scale assault could resume.

Top Israeli security officials met on Wednesday to discuss how far to go in their response to attacks from militants in Gaza.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had scheduled a visit to Washington this week, but a senior Israeli official on Wednesday said the trip was canceled due to the new flare-ups of violence.