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UN Chief, Ban Ki-Moon, Heads To Mideast

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UNITED NATIONS — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon heads to the Mideast on Tuesday to step up diplomatic efforts to get Israel and Hamas to adhere to a U.N. cease-fire resolution in the Gaza Strip and allow humanitarian aid into the devastated Palestinian territory.

Since Israel launched its air and ground offensive on Dec. 27, Ban said he has been on the phone constantly with top officials in the Middle East, Europe and the United States promoting a cease-fire. But he said phone calls aren't a substitute for direct talks with leaders who have influence on the parties.

"To both sides, I say: Just stop, now," the U.N. chief told a news conference Monday. "Too many people have died. There has been too much civilian suffering. Too many people, Israelis and Palestinians, live in daily fear of their lives."

The secretary-general said he was trying to visit all countries that "can make a difference." He will meet senior officials in Egypt and Jordan Wednesday, then head to Israel, the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait where he said an Arab League summit may add an extra session to tackle the Gaza conflict.

His itinerary does not include a stop in Gaza because of the ongoing conflict.

Ban said he will be discussing an immediate cease-fire with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, who is hosting separate talks with the Israelis and Hamas, and pressing Israel's leaders, and the presidents of Turkey and Syria, who have influence with Hamas, for a halt to the fighting.

He added that he has been discussing the conflict with the Americans, Israel's closest ally, every day.

Ban said he would also be encouraging diplomatic initiatives _ including one by Mubarak _ to open border crossings, strengthen border security, provide humanitarian assistance, protect the Palestinian population in Gaza, and reunite Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Fatah-controlled West Bank.

Ban said the United Nations maintains diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas whom he will visit in Ramallah, but U.N. officials have only technical contact with Hamas representatives, which seized control of Gaza from Abbas' government in 2007.

"I urge again that Hamas militants _ they must stop, they must look to the future of the Palestinian people," he said.

The Security Council resolution adopted Thursday by a vote of 14-0, with the U.S. abstaining, "stresses the urgency of and calls for an immediate, durable and fully respected cease-fire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza."

The U.N. chief will return to New York on Jan. 20, just before Barack Obama's inauguration.