Hamas fighters gaining control of Gaza Strip


MIDDLE EAST:Hamas fighters launched another wave of fierce attacks on their Fatah rivals yesterday, plunging the Gaza Strip closer to civil war in what appeared to be a carefully-co-ordinated attempt to seize control of the streets.

Gunmen from Hamas and their Fatah rivals fought battles in the north and south of the strip, with the Islamist movement repeatedly gaining the upper hand.

Hamas fighters seized security posts which provide control of two major roads running north to south through Gaza. They also took control of Khan Younis, a town in the south.

Last night, they began attacking a number of security posts in Gaza City. At least 17 Palestinians were killed, including a number of civilians. Among the dead were two workers for the UN Relief and Works Agency. Dozens more were injured, including two other UN staff.

In the past four days of fighting at least 65 people have died and there appears to be little sign of an end to the conflict.

"This is madness, the madness that is going on in Gaza now," said Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president and Fatah leader, who remains in the West Bank.

Mr Abbas spoke by telephone to Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas's political bureau in Damascus, but they failed to agree a ceasefire.

In a broadcast on a Hamas radio station, the Islamist movement said that it was preparing an offensive to seize Mr Abbas's presidential compound in Gaza City and the nearby national security headquarters.

Hamas warned Fatah forces in northern Gaza to give up their weapons before Friday evening, while Fatah commanders told their forces to stay and fight.

At one stage yesterday several hundred people gathered in Gaza City to protest against the violence. Hamas gunmen tried to scatter the crowd by firing into the air, while elsewhere in the city snipers took up positions on several tower blocks.

This week's fighting is the latest episode in a worsening power struggle between Hamas, which won elections last year, and Fatah. For more than six months the two factions have fought on the streets of Gaza, violating dozens of ceasefires and effectively tearing up a political deal in February which produced a coalition government.

There are growing calls for the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to the small, overcrowded and fraught Gaza Strip. Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, said that the EU would consider sending troops if an international force was established.

The Italian foreign minister, Massimo D'Alema, said that he supported the idea, and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, is understood to be considering the possibility of such a force being deployed.

On the ground in Gaza yesterday the fighting appeared to be driving the national unity government towards collapse. Hamas fighters took the town of Khan Younis after a bomb destroyed a tunnel underneath a Fatah security headquarters. At least one man was killed and eight were injured in the blast.

Fatah forces retreated further south to the border town of Rafah and at least 40 Fatah gunmen were reported to have fled into Egypt. "Khan Younis is finished, but we are still holding on in Rafah," said Ziad Sarafandi, a senior Fatah security official.

Near Gaza City, several hundred men, women and children from the Bakr clan, allied to Fatah, surrendered and walked with raised arms into a nearby mosque. The clan, like many others in Gaza, has its own armed force of about 200 men.

The UN warned that food deliveries and medical care were at risk. "We are extremely concerned for the plight of the one million refugees who depend on UNRWA's services," said John Ging, director of the agency's Gaza operation. "However, we cannot deliver food and medical services in the crossfire."

In the West Bank, Fatah gunmen in Nablus surrounded a pro-Hamas television company and attacked its offices. - ( Guardian Service)