OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Canadian government blamed the Palestinian militant group Hamas for the deaths of more than 40 civilians who were killed by Israeli shells on Tuesday in some of the most hard-line comments by any leading western nation on the deadly incident.
Medical officials in Gaza said the civilians had been sheltering at a United Nations school. The Israeli army accused Hamas of using the civilians as human shields and of firing mortars at its troops from inside the school.
"Hamas bears a terrible responsibility for this and for the wider deepening humanitarian tragedy," Canadian Junior Foreign Minister Peter Kent told Reuters when asked for Ottawa's reaction to the attack.
"The burden of responsibility is on Hamas to stop its terrorist rocketing of Israel."
Canada's current Conservative government, which took power in early 2006, is an outspoken supporter of Israel.
"It is a tragedy and Canada is concerned about the loss of civilian life", Kent said of the school shelling, adding that Ottawa did not yet know much about the incident.
"Hamas's record is to use civilians -- the population and civilian infrastructure -- as shields and it would seem quite possible that this is yet another tragic instance," he said.
France and Egypt are at the forefront of efforts to stop the fighting, in which more than 600 civilians have been killed. Kent said a short-term truce might not have much effect.
"The problem is that Hamas's record is that they've used temporary cease-fires in the past merely to rearm and then resume their terrorist activities," he said.
Kent, echoing the line of previous Canadian governments, said Ottawa was ready to play a constructive role in a future Middle East peace process.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson