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US, UN, EU and Russia urge immediate Gaza truce

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UNITED NATIONS — Key world powers trying to promote Mideast peace urged Israel and Hamas on Tuesday to immediately stop fighting in Gaza and southern Israel, the United Nations announced as international efforts to calm the conflict picked up pace.

The Quartet of Mideast peacemakers _ the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia _ appealed "for an immediate cease-fire that would be fully respected," U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.

The statement came four days after Israeli warplanes started bombing in Gaza, targeting Hamas-related installations and homes in an attempt to force a halt to militant rocket attacks on towns in southern Israel.

The Quartet also "called on all parties to address the serious humanitarian and economic needs in Gaza and to take necessary measures to ensure the continuous provision of humanitarian supplies," Okabe said.

"They agreed on the urgent need for Israelis and Palestinians to continue on the road to peace," she said.

U.N. officials said Quartet members were following up individually with Israel and the other parties.

Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, canceled a video news conference from Jerusalem with reporters at U.N. headquarters to pursue the issue. French President Nicolas Sarkozy planned to meet with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Thursday.

Israeli officials said earlier Tuesday that Israel was considering a 48-hour suspension of its punishing air campaign to see if Palestinian militants would stop rocket attacks.

Okabe said the Quartet's appeal was agreed on during a teleconference involving U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, whose country holds the EU presidency, and the group's Mideast envoy, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Earlier Tuesday in Paris, Kouchner, who spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, said an immediate cease-fire was needed to allow aid and medical help into Gaza and to evacuate wounded.

"What do we want? We want, and there are no differences, a cease-fire, that it be permanent, that it be respected," Kouchner said on TF1 television.

Hours later, EU foreign ministers holding an emergency meeting in Paris to discuss the Gaza crisis endorsed a call for an "immediate and permanent cease-fire." Food, medical aid and fuel also should be allowed into Gaza, their statement said.

The 27-member bloc said the peace process must be stepped up. "There is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in Gaza or elsewhere," it said, in the statement's sole allusion to the Israeli offensive.

The carefully worded statement also did not level any blame for the conflict, referring instead to "tragic events in Israel and Gaza."

Ban had complained to reporters Monday that regional and international partners were not doing enough to help end the Israeli-Hamas conflict.

"They should do more," he said. "They should use all possible means to end the violence and encourage political dialogue, emphasizing peaceful ways of resolving differences."

Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to the U.N., called Ban's criticism "unfair." He said the United States had been very active diplomatically. Rice, for one, had been on the phone with the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Europeans, the Russians and others, he said.

"Everyone is of the view that two things are important _ an end to violence, a cease-fire, an enduring cease-fire, and two ... the humanitarian needs of the Palestinians in Gaza," Khalilzad told The Associated Press.

Khalilzad stressed that a cease-fire must deal "not only with what we're seeing now, of course, but also what has caused it, which from our point of view is the sequencing _ it is the rockets, it's the smuggling of arms by Hamas and the other (Palestinian militant) groups."

Rice has called for a "durable and sustainable" cease-fire, with stronger provisions than the rocky six-month truce between Hamas and Israel that expired earlier this month after Hamas refused to extend it.

Critics of Israel's bombing campaign called it a disproportionate reaction to Hamas' rocket attacks and feared Israel would transform the aerial assault into a ground offensive like its 2006 war with the Iranian-backed militants of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The concerns were highlighted by Ban's complaint about the slowness of major nations to push for a halt to the fighting.

Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East expert at the City University of London, said the slow response from the West might be based on the hope that the Israelis would be able to deal a critical blow to Hamas before a cease-fire was put in place.

"There is a perception that what they have called the bad guys _ Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas _ are getting stronger, so leave it to the Israelis to blunt their hubris and show that victory is not theirs," Hollis said.

Francois Heisbourg of the French government-backed Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, said such views put Western governments in a difficult position.

"It's a very tricky one ...," he said. "Condemning an operation against a terrorist organization has some complications."

Germany, for one, firmly pinned the blame for the conflict on Hamas, which seized power in Gaza and rules in defiance of the moderate Palestinian Authority, headquartered in the West Bank.

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Associated Press writer Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.