GAZA CITY, June 28 (AP): Israeli tanks and troops entered southern Gaza and planes attacked three bridges and a power station, knocking out electricity in most of the coastal strip early Wednesday and stepping up the pressure on Palestinian militants holding captive a 19-year-old Israeli soldier.
Israeli tanks and soldiers began taking up positions in two locations east of the Gaza town of Rafah under the cover of tank shells, according to witnesses and Palestinian security officials. Palestinians dug in behind walls and sand embankments, bracing for a major Israeli offensive. The Israeli forces were about 1 ½ kilometres (a mile) away from the town.
No casualties were reported in any of the attacks.
The Israeli strikes came amid intensive diplomatic efforts in the Arab world and by the United Nations. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israel to "give diplomacy a chance."
Trying to defuse building tensions, negotiators from the ruling Hamas movement said Tuesday they had accepted a document implicitly recognising Israel. But two Syrian-based Hamas leaders denied a final deal had been reached.
Israel said only freedom for the captive soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, could defuse the crisis, not a political agreement.
Early Wednesday, Israeli warplanes attacked one of the bridges for a second time, Palestinian security officials said. Before daybreak, Israeli warplanes flew low over Gaza city, causing sonic booms and breaking windows.
Overnight, Israeli planes fired at least nine missiles at Gaza's only power station, cutting electricity to much of the Gaza Strip, Palestinian security officials said.
The station's three functioning turbines and a gasoline reservoir were engulfed in enormous flames that firefighters were unable to control.
The attack raised the specter of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, as water pumps in the strip are powered by electricity.
Masked militants from various armed factions took up defensive positions around Gaza City, instructing drivers to turn their headlights off. Militants from three armed factions said they fired a rocket early Wednesday at the Israeli village of Nahal Oz, where Israeli forces are concentrated in a staging area. An Associated Press reporter saw tanks moving on the Israeli side of the border fence.
The militants told residents to leave the area. They piled gasoline-soaked tires in the streets. Earlier, bulldozers blocked some of the main roads with piles of sand and dirt to try to slow down Israeli tanks.
Palestinian TV showed pictures of the first bridge hit, with fallen concrete blocks, twisted metal and protruding water pipes. Children walked in the wreckage.
After Israel launched its Gaza assault, the PRC threatened to kill its hostage.
Hamas' Web site said there were "back channel" negotiations with Israel over a prisoner release.
Israeli military officials said a negotiating team has been activated, but declined to release further information.