Saturday, January 10, 2009

Belgium seeks EU mission to evacuate Gaza children


BRUSSELS, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Belgium plans to start moving wounded children evacuated from the Gaza Strip to hospitals as soon as Saturday and is urging European Union countries to join its mission, the foreign ministry said on Thursday.

A Belgian reconnaissance team is scheduled to arrive in Egypt on Friday and is considering transporting injured children evacuated from Gaza by local aid groups to hospitals in Egypt, Lebanon or Jordan. Some may also be flown to Belgium.

Brussels will urge other European Union countries to join the mission at a meeting of EU ambassadors on Friday.

"At this stage this is a Belgian operation but with the aim of gaining progressive support from other countries," said Bart Ouvry, a spokesman for Belgium's foreign ministry, adding Belgium had informed Israeli authorities of its plans.

Medical facilities in Gaza have been overwhelmed since Israel began a military offensive in the Palestinian territory on Dec. 27, in response to cross-border rocket attacks by Hamas, the militant Islamist group ruling Gaza.

Around 765 Palestinians have been killed and at least 3,000 wounded in Gaza where a U.N. agency halted work on Thursday, saying their staff were at risk from the fighting.

A spokesman for EU Development and Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel said the European Commission backed the Belgian evacuation plan.

"The European Commission welcomes this Belgian initiative, and is ready to facilitate or support in any way it can an eventual initiative at the European level," said spokesman John Clancy.

Eli Lev, Israel's Deputy Ambassador to Belgium, said Israel would in principle support a coordinated EU evacuation mission, but the logistics of allowing individual countries into Gaza to assist and evacuate wounded children would be unmanageable.

Israel has said any civilian casualties have been wholly unintentional, and that its policy is to assist the innocent.

The Belgian C-130 aircraft carrying the reconnaissance team and supplies is set to land in the Egyptian city of El-Arish, some 60 kilometres from the Gaza border on Friday.

The team, comprised of medics, consular officials and translators, will coordinate with Egyptian authorities, hospitals and humanitarian groups, as well as those in Gaza. (Reporting by Anne Jolis; Editing by Sophie Hares)


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