UN chief surprised by escalation of Israel's bombardment, calls for humanitarian ceasefire

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks at the United Nations Headquarters in New York

(Reuters) -U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Saturday he was surprised by Israel's escalation of the bombardments in Gaza, and repeated a call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire for the delivery of aid.

"I was encouraged in the last days by what seemed to be a growing consensus in the international community ... for the need of at least a humanitarian pause in the fighting," Guterres said in a statement.

"Regrettably, instead of the pause, I was surprised by an unprecedented escalation of the bombardments and their devastating impacts, undermining the referred humanitarian objectives," he said.

Guterres' comments follow Israel's escalation of the weeks-long reprisal for the Oct. 7 attack by Palestinian militant group Hamas which killed 1,400 Israelis.

Aid agencies say a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding for Gaza's 2.3 million people who are under a total Israeli blockade. Health authorities in the Hamas-run enclave said 7,650 Palestinians, also mostly civilians, have been killed since Israel's bombardment began.

Gaza has been under an almost complete communications blackout since Friday evening, which the Palestinian Red Crescent blamed on Israel.

"Given the breakdown in communications, I am also extremely concerned about the UN staff who are in Gaza to deliver humanitarian assistance," Guterres said on Saturday. "This situation must be reversed."

The head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the blackout was blocking ambulances and evacuations of patients and denying people safe shelter.

He and other aid agencies said they could not contact their staff, but a representative from the International Committees of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Red Crescent in Gaza got an audio message out.

Calls for a ceasefire have been growing louder worldwide. Hundreds of thousands of people protested in cities around the world in support of Palestine on Saturday.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Writing by Ismail Shakil and Moira Warburton; editing by Diane Craft)