Israeli military says troops did not open fire on Gazans waiting for aid

Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli strike on an aid warehouse, in Al-Nuseirat refugee camp

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's military said armed Palestinians had opened fire while crowds were waiting for aid trucks in the northern Gaza Strip and denied soldiers fired at the convoy, defending its actions in an incident on Thursday in which Gaza officials said 21 people were killed.

The incident echoed a similar incident at the end of February when scores of Palestinians were killed waiting for food trucks in the northern part of Gaza, which has been largely cut off from aid supplies as Israel's five-month-old military campaign to eliminate Hamas grinds on.

The health ministry in Gaza blamed Israeli gunfire for the deaths at the Kuwait roundabout on Thursday and said another eight people were killed by an airstrike in a separate incident in the central Gaza Strip. The Israeli army said on Friday it had conducted an initial investigation and concluded that its troops had not opened fire.

"A review of our operational systems and IDF forces on the ground found that no tank fire, air-strike or gunfire was carried out toward the Gazan civilians at the aid convoy," it said in a statement.

Palestinian gunmen had been firing as people took aid off the trucks and several civilians were also run over by the trucks, it said.

Such incidents have underscored the chaotic conditions in which aid is arriving in Gaza and have increased pressure on Israel to get more humanitarian supplies into the besieged enclave, now largely in ruins.

The military said it was continuing to review the incident but accused Hamas, the Islamist movement that controlled Gaza, of what it called a "smear campaign" aimed at blaming Israel for killing people waiting for aid.

Israel has rejected accusations from foreign governments and aid agencies that it has hindered the flow of food and other supplies to the enclave's 2.3 million people and caused a growing risk of famine. The Israeli military said this week it plans to "flood Gaza" with aid through different channels.

It blames international aid groups for failing to deliver aid and says it has started arranging deliveries with local private contractors.

It said the aid the crowds were waiting for on Thursday came in a convoy of 31 trucks intended for distribution in the northern Gaza Strip, which was the first area hit in its offensive and where an estimated 250,000-300,000 people are living amid the ruins.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Frances Kerry)