Saturday, January 27, 2007

Fifteen Palestinians killed in Gaza clashes between Hamas and Fatah

Fifteen Palestinians killed in Gaza clashes
By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - Rival Palestinian factions clashed in the Gaza Strip on Friday, killing 15 people including a two-year-old child, and a Fatah-linked group said it had captured 24 Hamas hostages.

The death toll in a wave of bombings and shootings is the highest in internal Palestinian fighting in a single day of violence since Hamas's rise to power exactly a year ago.

In Jabalya in the northern Gaza Strip, Hamas gunmen besieged and later stormed the house of senior Fatah militant Mansour Shalayel, who they accused of shooting a Hamas supporter.

Security forces said they managed to regain control of the house and drive away the attackers and free Shalayel and other people who were holed up inside the house unharmed.

Hamas disputed Fatah's claim of success and said they were in control of the house. Shalayel had not been seen late on Friday and his whereabouts or condition were not known.

Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades said it had seized 24 Hamas supporters in Gaza and the West Bank and threatened a "severe response" if Hamas gunmen harmed Shalayel.

Residents said gunfire echoed across Gaza late on Friday and both Hamas and Fatah forces deployed on the streets. Two rocket-propelled grenades were fired at Fatah's Preventive Security headquarters in Gaza City.

A rocket-propelled grenade was also fired at the house of Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar of Hamas and caused extensive damage, a Hamas official said. He added that Zahar's family members were inside the house at the time but were unharmed.

The mounting violence prompted Hamas to call off the talks over forming a coalition government which could ease a U.S.-led boycott imposed after Hamas won a parliamentary poll a year ago.

"The Fatah movement continues to give a factional, political and media cover to the killers. Hamas has therefore decided to suspend all talks with Fatah," spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.

Fatah spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa blamed the talks breakdown on Hamas.

"Hamas is responsible for the current wave of clashes and crimes. A bloody party within Hamas is not willing to pursue the dialogue and continues to kill Fatah members," he said.

At least eight Hamas supporters, a militant from Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, five others and the young child who died in crossfire in southern Gaza, fell victim after the violence began with a bombing on Thursday.

Hamas vowed revenge for the killing of their members and of the leader named Zuhair al-Mansi which spokesman Barhoum described as a "grave crime".

The fighting coincided with a rally by thousands of Hamas supporters to mark the first anniversary of the Islamist group's election victory over the once-dominant Fatah last year.

In the occupied West Bank city of Nablus, Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades paraded a group of nine youths it had captured and threatened revenge if Shalayel was hurt. The youths were later freed unharmed. In Gaza, 15 hostages were still being held.

In the West Bank town of Tulkarm unknown gunmen shot and critically wounded a Hamas official as he left evening prayers.


Around 40 Palestinians have been killed in fighting between rival groups since President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah called last month for presidential and parliamentary elections after a previous round of unity talks broke down.

Hamas has said any snap poll would amount to a coup. But it has struggled to govern since taking office in March under the weight of sanctions imposed because of its refusal to recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by interim peace deals.

Abbas, a moderate, and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal pledged on Sunday to curb Palestinian bloodshed after inconclusive talks to end their power struggle and form a unity government.

Hamas leaders remained defiant on Friday as they marked the anniversary of its January 25, 2006 election victory.

Hamas leaders have offered Israel a long-term truce in return for a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, although the Islamist group's charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. Hamas continues to say that it will not formally recognize Israel.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah)