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U.N. Secretary-General concerned by Gaza escalation

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 3 (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called for an immediate end to Israel's ground operation in Gaza on Saturday, the U.N. press office said in a statement.

In a telephone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Ban conveyed his "extreme concern and disappointment," the statement said.

Ban "is convinced and alarmed that this escalation will inevitably increase the already heavy suffering of the affected civilian populations," the statement said. He asked that Israel ensure civilian safety and allow humanitarian assistance to reach those in need, according to the statement.

The secretary-general urged regional and international partners to "exert all possible influence to bring about an immediate end to the bloodshed and suffering."

Israel launched a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, sending tanks and infantry into battle with Hamas fighters who have defied eight days of deadly air strikes with salvoes of rocket fire into Israeli towns.

Israeli tanks killed seven Gazans at the onset of the night-time invasion, bringing the Palestinian death toll since Dec. 27 to more than 450, medical officials said.

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