WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration on Friday condemned violations of the internationally-brokered Gaza cease-fire by Palestinian militants and said the apparent abduction of an Israeli soldier was a "barbaric" action.
Secretary of State John Kerry denounced as "outrageous" a militant attack that killed two Israeli soldiers and led to the alleged abduction. Saying it was an affront to assurances to respect the cease-fire given to the United States and United Nations, which brokered the truce. He demanded that the militant Hamas movement that controls Gaza move to "immediately and unconditionally release" the missing Israeli soldier.
"The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms today's attack," Kerry said in a statement released by the State Department as he was flying back to the U.S. from an official trip to India.
At the White House, President Barack Obama said putting a cease-fire back together would be difficult, but credited Kerry with trying, and said the U.S. would continue its efforts. At the same time, he called the situation in the Mideast "heartbreaking" and said the U.S. wants to see everything possible done to ensure that Palestinian civilians aren't killed.
"Innocent civilians caught in the crossfire have to weigh on our conscience, and we have to do more," Obama said.
Kerry learned of the attack aboard an Air Force plane as he was flying home from New Delhi, when an aide showed him press reports of the fresh outbreak of violence.
The aide said Kerry "immediately grasped the severity" of the situation and started calling diplomats across the Mideast. He spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the foreign ministers from Qatar and Turkey, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, and reached Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas when his plane landed at a refueling stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. He also spoke with U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice, the aide said. The aide was not authorized to discuss Kerry's private calls publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
By the time Kerry was told about the broken truce, it was about 11:30 a.m. in Israel, and the fighting had already resumed more than two hours earlier.
In his statement, Kerry said it would be a "tragedy if this outrageous attack leads to more suffering and loss of life on both sides of this conflict."
"The international community must now redouble its efforts to end the tunnel and rocket attacks by Hamas terrorists on Israel and the suffering and loss of civilian life," he said.
According to Netanyahu's office, the prime minister told Kerry that "Hamas has unilaterally and grossly violated the humanitarian cease-fire" and "will bear the consequences of their actions." That call came after the Israeli military reported that one of its soldiers was "feared" abducted just 90 minutes after the cease-fire took effect. Meanwhile, Palestinian officials said 35 Palestinians were killed by Israeli shelling.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest had called the attack and apparent abduction "a barbaric violation of the cease-fire agreement."
Senior State Department officials traveling with Kerry said the primary U.S. focus is to find and return the kidnapped Israeli soldier, although concerns remain high about the safety of Palestinian civilians who could be killed or wounded in Israeli strikes. It's not clear how soon — or even whether — cease-fire negotiations could resume, although it's not unprecedented for talks to happen even during fighting.
The U.S. special envoy for the Mideast, Frank Lowenstein, was en route to Cairo and planned to continue on to speak with Egyptian officials who had offered to host cease-fire talks. It was not immediately clear if other U.S. officials would head to Cairo as initially planned. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, who was supposed to attend, delayed his plans to travel on Friday and was continuing to assess whether he would go at all.
Associated Press writer Mark Smith in Washington and AP National Security Writer Lara Jakes at Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany, contributed to this report.