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Obama calls for release of Israeli soldier in Gaza

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration on Friday condemned violations of the internationally-brokered Gaza cease-fire by Palestinian militants and said the apparent abduction of an Israeli soldier was a “barbaric” action.

With the cease-fire in tatters and declared dead by Israel, President Barack Obama demanded that those responsible immediately release the kidnapped soldier unharmed. He and other U.S. officials did not directly blame the militant Hamas movement for the abduction, but they made clear they hold Hamas responsible for, or having influence over, the actions of all factions in Gaza.

President Barack Obama speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Aug. 1, 2014. He addressed the economy, immigration, Ukraine and the Middle East. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

“If they are serious about trying to resolve this situation, that soldier needs to be unconditionally released as soon as possible,” Obama told reporters at the White House. He said putting the cease-fire back together would be difficult without the release.

“It’s going to be very hard to put a cease-fire back together again if Israelis and the international community can’t feel confident that Hamas can follow through on a cease-fire commitment,” he said.

At the same time, he called the situation in Gaza “heartbreaking” and repeated calls for Israel to do more to prevent Palestinian civilian casualties.

“Innocent civilians caught in the crossfire have to weigh on our conscience, and we have to do more,” Obama said.

Despite the collapse of the truce, Obama credited Secretary of State John Kerry for his work with the United Nations to forge one. He lamented criticism and “nitpicking” of Kerry’s attempts and said the effort would continue despite the latest setback.

Kerry himself denounced the attack as “outrageous,” saying it was an affront to assurances to respect the cease-fire given to the United States and United Nations, which brokered the truce.

“The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms today’s attack,” Kerry said in a statement released by the State Department as he was flying back to the U.S. from an official trip to India.

Kerry learned of the attack aboard an Air Force plane as he was flying home from New Delhi, when an aide showed him press reports of the fresh outbreak of violence.

The aide said Kerry “immediately grasped the severity” of the situation and started calling diplomats across the Mideast. He spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the foreign ministers from Qatar and Turkey, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, and reached Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas when his plane landed at a refueling stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. He also spoke with U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice, the aide said. The aide was not authorized to discuss Kerry’s private calls publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

By the time Kerry was told about the broken truce, it was about 11:30 a.m. in Israel, and the fighting had already resumed more than two hours earlier.

The presidential flag is readied in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, after it was announced that President Barack Obama will deliver a statement. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

In his statement, Kerry said it would be a “tragedy if this outrageous attack leads to more suffering and loss of life on both sides of this conflict.”

“The international community must now redouble its efforts to end the tunnel and rocket attacks by Hamas terrorists on Israel and the suffering and loss of civilian life,” he said.

According to Netanyahu’s office, the prime minister told Kerry that “Hamas has unilaterally and grossly violated the humanitarian cease-fire” and “will bear the consequences of their actions.” That call came after the Israeli military reported that one of its soldiers was “feared” abducted just 90 minutes after the cease-fire took effect. Meanwhile, Palestinian officials said 35 Palestinians were killed by Israeli shelling.

Senior State Department officials traveling with Kerry said the primary U.S. focus is to find and return the kidnapped Israeli soldier, although concerns remain high about the safety of Palestinian civilians who could be killed or wounded in Israeli strikes. It’s not clear how soon – or even whether – cease-fire negotiations could resume, although it’s not unprecedented for talks to happen even during fighting.

The U.S. special envoy for the Mideast, Frank Lowenstein, was en route to Cairo and planned to continue on to speak with Egyptian officials who had offered to host cease-fire talks. It was not immediately clear if other U.S. officials would head to Cairo as initially planned. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, who was supposed to attend, delayed his plans to travel on Friday and was continuing to assess whether he would go at all.

 

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