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U.N. picks American to lead investigation into Gaza protest killings

GENEVA (Reuters) - A former senior U.S. legal official, David Crane, will lead a U.N. investigation into violence in Gaza, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

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At least 140 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli army in what it has called border protection. One Israeli soldier has been killed during the weekly protests that began on March 30.

The U.N. Human Rights Council voted in May to set up the probe into the killings, to the fury of Israel, which said it was being demonized.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman on Wednesday declined immediate comment.

Israel has a long history of not cooperating with U.N. human rights inquiries or allowing them access to Gaza.

Crane, who leads the three-person Commission of Inquiry, is a law professor at Syracuse University who the U.N. said had over 30 years’ experience in the U.S. federal government, including as Senior Inspector General in the Department of Defense.

“Professor Crane served as Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone from April 2002 until 15 July 2005, during which period he indicted, among others, the then-President of Liberia, Charles Taylor,” a U.N. statement said.

His co-commissioners will be Sara Hossain, a Bangladeshi barrister who formerly worked on U.N. investigations into human rights in North Korea, and Kaari Betty Murungi, a board member of the Kenya Human Rights Commission and previously a legal adviser at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

The commissioners will present a final written report in March next year.

The U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that he had visited Gaza over the past week in an urgent effort to de-escalate tensions.

“I appealed to Palestinian factions not to provoke incidents at the fence, to immediately stop the firing of rockets and mortars and to stop the incendiary kites and balloons. And I appealed to Israel to reopen the crossings, stop shelling, particularly in populated areas, and to exercise restraint toward Gaza,” he said.

“Over the last two weeks however the situation quickly spiraled out of control, nearly to a point of no-return.”

Intense efforts by the United Nations and Egypt had calmed the situation, Mladenov said, but only in the short-term.

Reporting by Tom Miles, additional reporting by Ori Lewis, editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Andrew Bolton