Jerusalem, May 6 (AP/UNB) — Gaza militants fired hundreds of rockets into southern Israel on Sunday, killing at least four Israelis and bringing life to a standstill across the region in the bloodiest fighting since a 2014 war. As Israel pounded Gaza with airstrikes, the Palestinian death toll rose to 23, including two pregnant women and two babies.
The bloodshed marked the first Israeli fatalities from rocket fire since the 2014 war. With Palestinian militants threatening to send rockets deeper into Israel and Israeli reinforcements massing near the Gaza frontier, the fighting showed no signs of slowing down.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent most of the day huddled with his Security Cabinet. Late Sunday, the Cabinet instructed the army to “continue its attacks and to stand by” for further orders. Israel also claimed to have killed a Hamas commander involved in transferring Iranian funds to the group.
Israel and Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks Israel’s destruction, have fought three wars since Hamas violently seized control of Gaza from Western-backed Palestinian forces in 2007. They have fought numerous smaller battles, most recently two rounds in March.
While lulls in fighting used to last for months or even years, these flare-ups have grown increasingly frequent as a desperate Hamas, weakened by a crippling Egyptian-Israeli blockade imposed 12 years ago, seeks to put pressure on Israel to ease the closure.
The blockade has ravaged Gaza’s economy, and a year of Hamas-led protests along the Israeli frontier has yielded no tangible benefits. In March, Hamas faced several days of street protests over the dire conditions.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a statement late Sunday that the militant group was “not interested in a new war.”
He signaled readiness to “return to the state of calm” if Israel stopped its attacks “and immediately starts implementing understandings about a dignified life.”
With little to lose, Hamas appears to be trying to step up pressure on Netanyahu at a time when the Israeli leader is vulnerable on several fronts.
Fresh off an election victory, Netanyahu is now engaged in negotiations with his hard-line political partners on forming a governing coalition. If fighting drags on, the normally cautious Netanyahu could be weakened in his negotiations as his partners push for a tougher response.
Later this week, Israel marks Memorial Day, one of the most solemn days of the year, and its festive Independence Day. Next week, Israel is to host the Eurovision song contest. Prolonged fighting could overshadow these important occasions and deter foreign tourists.
The arrival of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins Monday, does not seem to be deterring Hamas.
But the group is also taking a big risk if it pushes too hard. During the 50-day war in 2014, Israel killed over 2,200 Palestinians, over half of them civilians, according to U.N. tallies, and caused widespread damage to homes and infrastructure. While Hamas is eager to burnish its credentials as a resistance group, the Gazan public has little stomach for another devastating war.
“Hamas is the change seeker,” said retired Brig. Gen. Assaf Orion, a former head of the Israeli military general staff’s strategic division. “Hamas needs to make its calculus, balancing its hope for improvement against its fear of escalation.”
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Israelis have “every right to defend themselves.” He expressed hope that the recent cease-fire could be restored.
President Donald Trump warned the Gaza militants that “these terrorist acts against Israel will bring you nothing but more misery.” ″We support Israel 100% in its defense of its citizens....” he tweeted. “END the violence and work towards peace - it can happen!”
The U.N. Mideast envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, called for a halt in rocket fire and “a return to the understandings of the past few months before it is too late.”
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini also called for a halt to “indiscriminate rocket attacks” from Gaza and expressed support for Egyptian and U.N. mediation efforts.
Previous rounds of fighting have all ended in informal Egyptian-mediated truces in which Israel pledged to ease the blockade while militants promised to halt rocket fire. Following a familiar pattern, the current round began with sporadic rocket fire amid Palestinian accusations that Israel was not keeping its promises to loosen the blockade.
On Friday, two Israeli soldiers were wounded by snipers from Islamic Jihad, a smaller Iranian-backed militant group that often cooperates with Hamas but sometimes acts independently. Israel responded by killing two Palestinian militants, leading to intense rocket barrages and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes beginning Saturday.
Islamic Jihad threatened to strike deeper into Israel, saying it “is ready to engage in an open confrontation and can open a broader front to defend our land and people.”
By Sunday, the Israeli military said militants had fired over 600 rockets, with the vast majority falling in open areas or intercepted by the Iron Dome rocket-defense system. But more than 30 rockets managed to strike urban areas, the army said.
Israeli officials said Moshe Agadi, a 58-year-old Israeli father of four, was fatally struck in the chest by shrapnel in a residential courtyard in the southern town of Ashkelon.
The other deaths included a 49-year-old man killed when a rocket hit an Ashkelon factory, a man who was killed when his vehicle was hit by a Kornet anti-tank missile near the Gaza border, and a 35-year-old man whose car was hit by a rocket in the southern city of Ashdod.
Israeli police said 66 people were wounded, three seriously. In Ashkelon, the Barzilai hospital itself was hit by debris from a rocket that was intercepted by an Iron Dome missile.
The Israeli deaths were the first rocket-related fatalities since the 2014 war, when 73 people, including six civilians, were killed on the Israeli side.
The Israeli military said it struck 250 targets in Gaza, including weapons storage, attack tunnels and rocket launching and production facilities. It also deployed tanks and infantry forces to the Gaza frontier, and put another brigade on standby.
“We have been given orders to prepare for a number of days of fighting under current conditions,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman.
Palestinian medical officials reported 23 dead, including at least eight militants hit in targeted airstrikes. At least four civilians, including two pregnant women and two babies, were also among the dead.
Late Saturday, the Palestinians said a 37-year-old pregnant woman and her 14-month-old niece were killed in an Israeli airstrike. The army denied involvement, saying they were killed by an errant Palestinian rocket. There was no way to reconcile the claims.
Among the militants who were killed was Hamas commander Hamed al-Khoudary, a money changer whom Israel said was a key player in transferring Iranian funds to the militant group.
Late Sunday, an Israeli airstrike hit an apartment building in northern Gaza, killing a couple in their early 30s and their 4-month-old daughter. A 12-year-old boy was also killed in northern Gaza.
Sirens wailed along Israel’s border region throughout the day warning of incoming attacks. School was canceled and roads were closed. In Gaza, large explosions thundered across the blockaded enclave during the night as plumes of smoke rose into the air.
Hamas seized control of Gaza from the forces of internationally recognized Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Despite his fierce rivalry with Hamas, Abbas appealed to the international community “to stop the Israeli aggression against our people.”
Moscow, May 6 (AP/UNB) — Russia's transportation minister says 41 bodies have been recovered from the burned wreckage of an Aeroflot plane at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport.
Minister Yevgeny Dietrich also told reporters in a Monday briefing that six people who survived the disaster Sunday night have been hospitalized.
The plane, a Sukhoi SSJ100, caught fire while making an emergency landing at the airport, after turning back on a flight to Murmansk for unspecified reasons.
Russia's Investigative Committee says the flight recorders from the plane have been recovered and that investigators are looking into inexperienced pilots, equipment failure and bad weather as possible causes for the disaster.
Russia's main investigative body says both flight recorders have been recovered from the plane that caught fire while making an emergency landing at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, killing at least 40 people.
Committee spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko was also quoted by Russian news agencies on Monday as saying investigators are looking into three main possibilities behind the cause of the disaster: insufficient pilot qualifications, equipment failure and weather.
Video on Russian TV showed the plane's underside bursting into flames and spewing black smoke after making a hard landing Sunday night. Those who escaped leapt out of the plane down inflatable emergency slides and ran across the tarmac.
Storms were passing through the Moscow area as when the Aeroflot SSJ100 regional jet caught fire during the emergency landing, after it turned back for unspecified reasons en route to Murmansk.
North Macedonia, May 5 (AP/UNB) — Polls have opened in North Macedonia for a presidential election runoff between two top vote-getters from the first round.
More than 3,400 polling stations opened at 7 a.m. Sunday.
The two candidates, Stevo Pendarovski of the ruling Social Democrats, and Gordana Siljanovska Davkova, backed by the conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, finished in a near dead heat, with about 42% of the votes each, in the first round on April 21.
A key question is whether turnout will reach the 40% needed for the election to be valid. The first round barely made it past, with a turnout of 41.8%.
If declared invalid, the two-round contest for the largely ceremonial post will be repeated.
Indonesia, May 5 (AP/UNB) — Indonesian authorities resumed their tough stance against illegal fishing in the country's waters by sinking 51 foreign ships Saturday, as the government ramps up efforts to exert greater control over its vast maritime territory.
The seized ships were sunk at five ports across the archipelago, which has some of the world's richest fishing grounds, the Maritime and Fisheries Ministry said in a statement.
The seized vessels sunk included 38 Vietnamese-flagged ships, 6 Malaysian, 2 Chinese and 1 Filipino. The rest were foreign-owned ships using Indonesian flag.
Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said in a speech that the illegal boats were a threat to the local fishing industry. Their operators are frequently perpetrators of modern day slavery.
"This crime of illegal fishing in our waters was out of mind," Pudjiastuti said. "We can't tolerate anymore."
Saturday's events were carried out in a low-key fashion compared with previous occasions, when boats were blown to pieces and their destruction broadcast live.
A video taken off Datuk island in West Kalimantan province and released by the ministry showed Pudjiastuti and other fishery officers scrambling to an adjacent boat from a sinking vessel that had been filled with sand and flooded. She clapped her hands when she saw several ships successfully sunk.
The move came a week after an Indonesian navy patrol ship was rammed by two Vietnamese coast guard ships after intercepting a boat it says was fishing illegally in its waters. The Vietnamese claimed that the area was Vietnamese waters.
Indonesia detained 12 Vietnamese fishermen from the boat, which sank in last Saturday's clash, and they are being held at a naval base on Natuna island.
Indonesian government says it has sunk more than 500 illegal fishing vessels since October 2014, many with explosives.
Last year, the ministry sunk 125 mostly foreign vessels, included 86 Vietnamese-flagged ships, 20 Malaysian and 14 from the Philippines.
Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, claims a huge exclusive economic zone, which is frequently penetrated by foreign fishing vessels. Its northerly reaches are regarded by China as its traditional fishing grounds despite their distance from the Chinese mainland.
Beirut, May 5 (AP/UNB) — Syrian government bombardment of rebel-held areas in the country's northwest has killed and wounded dozens and forced thousands to flee their homes, further endangering an eight-month truce in the last major rebel stronghold, opposition activists said Saturday.
The recent escalation of violence is the most serious in Idlib province and nearby areas since Russia and Turkey negotiated a cease-fire in September. The shaky truce had averted a major government offensive on the last major rebel stronghold in Syria.
On Saturday, government forces were sending new reinforcements toward Idlib, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and hundreds of troops.
Over the past weeks, government forces have bombarded rebel-held areas while al-Qaida-linked militants attacked army positions around Idlib killing more than two dozen troops and pro-government gunmen over the past week.
"The command's orders were given to bring these big reinforcements to respond to violations," a Syrian officer who asked that his name not be made public told The Associated Press. "We are waiting for orders to begin a military operation, God willing, soon."
The opposition's Syrian Civil Defense said 22 civilians have been killed and more than 60 wounded in airstrikes and shelling since Friday morning.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, reported more than 115 strikes against rebel-held areas on Saturday alone. It said six civilians were killed on Saturday raising to 67 the number of civilians and insurgents killed since Tuesday when the government began its new campaign.
Syria's state news agency SANA reported that government forces targeted positions of the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, the most powerful group in Idlib.
In violence in other parts of northern Syria, Turkey's defense ministry announced one Turkish soldier was killed and one lightly wounded in northwestern village of Tel Rifaat when Syrian Kurdish fighters shot at Turkish troops. The ministry said Turkish troops launched a counter-attack.
The attack was believed to have been carried out by the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization with links to Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.
The attack came days after YPG militants carried out an attack in a Turkish-controlled region in northern Syria killing a soldier and wounding three others. 2016.