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Thousands flee northern Gaza Strip

BY KARIN LAUB ANDJOSEF FEDERMANAssociated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Thousands of Palestinian residents of the northern Gaza Strip fled their homes on Sunday and sought safety in U.N. shelters, heeding warnings from the Israeli military about impending plans to bomb the area in the sixth day of an offensive against Hamas that has killed more than 160 people.

The fighting showed no signs of slowing, despite international calls for a cease-fire and growing concerns about the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and voiced U.S. "readiness" to help restore calm, while Egypt, a key mediator between Israel and Hamas, continued to work behind the scenes.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate cease-fire in a statement issued late Sunday by his spokesman's office.

Ban "strongly believes that it is in the interest of both sides that steps toward dangerous escalation be replaced with immediate measures to end the fighting, thus preventing further casualties and greater risks to regional peace and security," it said.

Ban condemned Hamas' indiscriminate firing of rockets against Israeli civilian targets as "a violation of international law," it said. He abhorred "the image of Israeli families hovering in shelters in fear of their children's safety" and demanded "an immediate cessation of these indecent attacks."

At the same time, the U.N. chief is "deeply worried about the impact on Palestinian families of Israeli military action. Too many Palestinian civilians have been killed, and any Israeli ground offensive will undoubtedly increase the death toll and exacerbate civilian suffering in the Gaza Strip," it said.

Ban noted that despite the U.N. Security Council's demand for a cease-fire, "the situation in and around the Gaza Strip appears to be worsening," it said.

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