7 die in gunbattles between Palestinian factions


Militiamen from the ruling Hamas group used guns, antitank launchers and grenades today to break up police and civil servant protests over unpaid government salaries, touching off gunbattles in Gaza City with security personnel loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas.

The fighting killed seven people, including a 15-year-old boy, and wounded 75, including three schoolchildren and a TV cameraman, hospital officials said. At least 15 of the wounded were civilians.

Dozens of supporters from Abbas' Fatah Party retaliated by ransacking and torching the empty Cabinet building in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The Fatah supporters had earlier marched through the city, the seat of the Palestinian government, burning tires and shouting, "Hamas, out, out." Hamas Radio accused Abbas of stoking the unrest and dividing the Palestinian people. It also attacked his efforts to pressure Hamas to recognise Israel, a move that could help to ease crushing international sanctions that have prevented the government from paying salaries.

Abbas ordered security personnel, most of whom are loyal to Fatah, not to take part in demonstrations. Yesterday, the Hamas-led government deployed all 3,000 Hamas militiamen across the Gaza Strip to stop the widening protests.

By this morning, the militiamen acted on their vow to break up unrest by force, if necessary. The most serious clash took place near the parliament building in Gaza City. After the crowd of protesters there swelled to include hundreds of police and civilians, Hamas militiamen rushed in, firing guns and antitank launchers, and lobbing grenades.

Militiamen and security personnel — including members of Abbas' elite bodyguard unit — began trading fire on two of the main streets of Gaza City near parliament, and gunmen from both sides took positions on rooftops near the legislature. People scattered in all directions, and schoolchildren, some of them screaming, sought protection by covering their heads with their schoolbags.

Two people were killed, a man and a teenager, and 32 were wounded, including three schoolchildren and a cameraman for the Arab satellite TV station Al-Arabiya. Merchants closed shops, and central Gaza City was snarled in traffic because of the gunbattles.

Plumes of acrid black smoke billowed up from cars that had been set on fire. The clashes later spilled over to an area near the president's residence. Hamas militiamen scrambled up to the rooftop of the nearby Agriculture Ministry and began firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at the presidential guard, killing one. Hospital officials later reported a fourth person killed.

This evening, a car from the Palestinian Preventive Security force came under fire from anonymous gunmen and a security officer was killed, security officials said.