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Canada "mourns" Gaza deaths, Baird's office says in call with Egyptian minister

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird responds to a question at a news conference Friday, May 2, 2014 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

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Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird responds to a question at a news conference Friday, May 2, 2014 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - The Harper government offered a renewed expression of sympathy for the deaths of the innocent Palestinian civilians in the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

The latest comment came Monday from a spokesman for Foreign Minister John Baird after days of unwavering support for Israel's right to defend itself in the face of rocket attacks from Hamas militants in Gaza.

"Canada mourns the death and suffering of innocent civilians in Gaza," Baird's spokesman Adam Hodge told The Canadian Press in an emailed response to questions. Baird made the same comment on Saturday.

Hodge also added on Monday: "Responsibility rests solely with Hamas and its allies, who launched and continue to feed this crisis."

As of Monday, an estimated 175 people had been killed in Gaza, dozens of them civilians, since Israel began air assaults last Tuesday. There have been no Israeli deaths from the Hamas rocket attacks, but several people have been wounded, including a teenaged boy seriously injured by shrapnel, the Associated Press reports.

Baird spoke Monday with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry about the situation in Gaza.

The minister's office said the two talked by telephone about what role Egypt could play in demanding Hamas stop firing rockets at Israel.

Baird repeated Canada's view that the Hamas attacks are unacceptable, and called on them to stop, according to a read-out of the call provided by Baird's office.

"Canada believes that Israel has every right to defend itself, by itself, from such belligerent acts of terrorism," it said.

"Baird continued by saying that Hamas has a clear choice. It can immediately lay down their arms, and stop the indiscriminate firing of rockets at innocent Israelis, or accept blame for the continuation of hostilities."

Liberal foreign affairs critic Marc Garneau applauded Baird for trying to enlist Egypt in finding a peaceful solution to the crisis that has seen Hamas fire almost 1,000 rockets at Israel, while the Jewish state has launched more than 1,300 air strikes.

"There's no question from our point of view, it goes without saying we condemn the rocket firings from Hamas and Israel has an obligation to protect itself. We'd expect the same thing if it was in our country," Garneau said in an interview Monday.

Garneau also said a cease fire was essential to prevent further civilian deaths.

"It (Gaza) is a highly densely populated place. Notwithstanding the technology of precision guided munitions, there's always a risk of collateral damage."

On Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields to defend against the Israeli bombardment.

Harper called on allies of Israel to show their support, saying that "failure by the international community to condemn these reprehensible actions would encourage these terrorists to continue their appalling actions."

During the Monday phone call, Hodge said Baird also raised the case of Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian journalist who was jailed in Egypt after he and two Al-Jazeera English colleagues were found guilty on terrorism-related charges. Hodge declined to give further details.

Baird has said he doesn't believe abrasive "bullhorn diplomacy" will help win Fahmy's release. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, but Baird has said the government hopes to win Fahmy's release through an appeal or pardon.

Egypt's president has said he won't intervene in the judicial process.

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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version wrongly said Monday's comment was the government's first expression of overt sympathy for the deaths of innocent Palestinian civilians in the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Such sympathy had been expressed earlier.

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