Poll call escalates Gaza violence

 

Forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas overran two government ministries today, sealed off the area around his home and battled gunmen from the ruling Hamas group as chaos threatened Gaza.

Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas leader, accused Mr Abbas's forces of attempting a "military coup" and demanded they leave the ministries or else be arrested, a move that could provoke further violence.

A 19-year-old woman was shot during an hour-long gunfight between Hamas and Fatah near Mr Abbas's compound and later died of her wounds, hospital officials said. Five other people were wounded, including a French journalist.

The spiralling unrest followed Abbas's call yesterday for presidential and parliamentary elections, a dramatic move that sought to end nine months of political impasse under Hamas's Islamist-led government.

Mr Abbas's 4,000-strong presidential guard, backed by members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group loyal to Abbas's Fatah movement, took over the Hamas-run Agriculture and Transport ministries, moving to secure a large swathe of central Gaza City around where Mr Abbas has a home.

Angered by the move, forces loyal to Hamas exchanged fire with presidential guards positioned on rooftops around the compound. Mr Abbas was not in Gaza at the time.

Earlier, a convoy carrying Zahar was fired on, prompting a gunfight between his guards and the attackers. Zahar was unharmed. His aides blamed the attack on Mr Abbas's forces.

In his first public comments since Mr Abbas called for early elections, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas leader, said new polls could cause greater unrest and urged calm. He has said Hamas will boycott new elections.

"The Palestinian government calls on all people to show restraint and to alleviate tensions," Haniyeh said. "The battle of the Palestinian people is not an internal battle. It's a battle against the (Israeli) occupation."

The security clampdown by Mr Abbas's special guard followed a dawn raid by masked gunmen on a training camp they use in which one guard was killed and at least five were wounded.

The gunmen wore uniforms similar to those used by Hamas fighters, a senior member of the presidential guard said, but Hamas denied involvement.

Hamas says the president has no authority to call early elections and has accused Mr Abbas of launching a coup.

After nine months of factional violence that has raised fears of civil war, Mr Abbas said polls should be held as soon as possible. But he also said efforts to form a unity government should continue, despite repeated failure.