Gaza civilian toll near 700, says rights group

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Figures from Gaza now put the civilian toll at 698 dead or about 65 percent of overall fatalities, the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said on Thursday.

Samih Mohen of the organisation's office in Ramallah in the West Bank said the toll to midnight on January 14th included 230 children, 76 women, seven medical workers, three journalists and two United Nations contractors.

The rest -- 380 dead -- were adult males, he said.

This number did not include 166 civil police killed by Israeli bombing on the first day of the offensive, which other reports may have placed among the list of civilian casualties.

He said the centre counts casualties independently of the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza. Its figures are collected daily by the organisation's field workers who visit Gaza hospitals, clinics and morgues, Mohen said.

The U.N. Humanitarian Affairs chief, John Holmes, has said he has no reason to doubt the casualty figures from Gaza, which indicate over 5,000 wounded.

Israel has not denied killing civilians but insists its military forces do everything possible to avoid it. It has suggested that the civilian toll from Gaza is inflated while the reported toll among fighters is too low.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said any civilian casualties in the 20-day-old offensive were unintentional and unfortunate but inevitable, given that Gaza's Hamas fighters were using ordinary Palestinians as human shields.

The high proportion of young casualties may in large part reflect the fact that Gaza has many children: about 56 percent of the population of 1.5 million is under 18.

The actual death toll overall in Gaza may be higher than reported, because Israeli bombs and high explosive shells have collapsed entire buildings and there may be bodies buried in the rubble.

There may also be more Palestinian fighters among the dead. In some cases they died in places where no recovery teams have been able to reach them or their bodies were hastily bulldozed into graves by advancing Israeli forces. (Reporting by Mohammed Assadi; writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Jon Boyle)