India says it is working to repatriate UN staffer killed in Gaza

United Nations in New York City

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India said on Wednesday it was working to repatriate the body of a former Indian Army officer serving as a U.N. staffer, who was killed in Gaza when his vehicle was hit by what the U.N. said was tank fire in Rafah where only Israeli tanks are present.

The staffer, Waibhav Anil Kale, was working with the U.N. Department of Safety and Security and was heading to the European Hospital in Rafah along with a colleague, who was wounded in the incident. The U.N. said he was the first international U.N. staffer killed in Gaza since the war began on Oct. 7, taking the total U.N. death toll to 191.

U.N. Secretary General's deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq said on Tuesday the U.N. had set up a fact-finding panel to determine the responsibility for Kale's death.

"It's very early in the investigation, and details of the incident are still being verified with the Israeli Defence Force (IDF)," he told a press conference.

Asked by reporters about the shots fired on the vehicle, he said, "we believe it came from a tank in the area" and later added, it was "safe" to assume that only the IDF tanks in that region.

There are 71 international U.N. staff members in Gaza currently, he said.

The IDF said in a statement on Monday that the incident was "under review" and the IDF had not been made aware of the vehicle's route. But an initial inquiry indicated that "the vehicle was hit in an area declared an active combat zone."

The Hamas-run government's media office accused Israel of "deliberately targeting foreign staff in the Gaza Strip".

India's foreign ministry said its diplomatic missions were "in touch with relevant authorities" on the investigation into Kale's death, and helping to bring home his body.

Israel has been moving deeper into Rafah in southern Gaza, where more than a million people had sought shelter, and its forces fought militants across the enclave's north on Wednesday in some of the fiercest battles in months.

Israel's international allies and aid groups have repeatedly warned against a ground incursion into Rafah, where many Palestinians fled, and Israel says four Hamas battalions are holed up. Israel says it must root out the remaining fighters.

In a statement on Monday after Kale's death, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated an "urgent appeal for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and for the release of all hostages," saying the conflict in Gaza was continuing to take a heavy toll "not only on civilians, but also on humanitarian workers". He has demanded explanations for all their deaths.

Palestinian health authorities say Israel's ground and air campaign in Gaza since Oct. 7 has killed more than 35,000 people and driven most of the enclave's 2.3 million people from their homes.

Israel, which launched its Gaza operation after an attack on Oct. 7 by Hamas-led gunmen who killed some 1,200 people and took more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies, has ordered civilians to evacuate parts of Rafah.

The main United Nations aid agency in Gaza, UNRWA estimates some 450,000 people have fled the city since May 6. More than a million civilians had sought refuge there.

(Reporting by Krishn Kaushik in New Delhi, Michelle Nichols in New York, Maytaal Angel in Jerusalem and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Cairo; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Philippa Fletcher)