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Palestinian Authority executes 4 men described as murderers


JERUSALEM - The Palestinian Authority, in a move denounced by rights groups, executed four men yesterday described as convicted murderers.

The executions in the Gaza Strip were the first carried out by Palestinian authorities since 2002.

International human rights groups and a number of Western governments had urged the government of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to refrain from capital punishment, in part because of opposition to the death penalty and in part because it was believed unlikely that the condemned had received fair trials.

A spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry, Tawfiq Abu Khoussa, described the executions as an attempt to underscore the seriousness of a government campaign to restore public order, particularly in the Gaza Strip.

"There is a new drive to confront and fight chaos and lawlessness in the Palestinian territories," Abu Khoussa told reporters in Gaza City.

Palestinian officials said in a news release that one of the men was executed by a firing squad and the others were hanged at a prison in Gaza City. All were executed before dawn, with no prior notice to their families.

The men were identified as Mohammed al Khawaja, 24; Wael Shoubaki, 33; Ouda Abu Azab, 27; and Salah Musallam, 27. They were described as common criminals who committed murders in the 1990s.

Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups had sought clemency for the men, who had spent years on death row. Raji Sourani of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights said his group had appealed to Abbas personally to stay the executions.

"It's a violation of basic human rights, especially in the absence of fair trials," said Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for the Israeli rights group B'Tselem.

Until yesterday, the Palestinian Authority had executed 13 people since 1994. Nine men, most of them accused of collaborating with Israel, have been killed by fellow inmates. Scores of other accused collaborators have been killed by vigilantes.

More than 50 Palestinians remain on death row.

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who died in November, came under heavy criticism over use of the death penalty and halted executions in 2002.

Yesterday's executions won praise from the Islamic militant group Hamas, which is mounting a strong electoral challenge to Abbas' ruling Fatah movement.

"We consider this a step in the right direction to protect the security of citizens and the state," said Ismail Haniya, a Hamas spokesman.

Law and order in the West Bank and Gaza have deteriorated in the course of more than four years of fighting with Israel, during which Palestinian security forces have been decimated.

Since Abbas took office, armed gangs from his own Fatah faction have repeatedly shot up government offices amid infighting or to express anger over grievances. Before dawn Saturday, gunmen attacked an office of one of the security forces in Gaza, setting off a gunbattle that lasted hours.

The executions follow a new wave of violence in Palestinian areas. Gunmen have clashed with Palestinian security forces in Gaza at least three times in recent days.

After the executions, unrest continued in the bustling West Bank town of Ramallah, where a feud between two families escalated from a fistfight into a shootout. Officials said the shooting caused public panic though no one was wounded.

Separately, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been sparring over the question of whether Abbas' government will move to disarm Palestinian militant groups.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser Kidwa angered Israeli officials Saturday by saying that no move would be made to seize the weapons of groups such as Hamas as long as Israel occupies the West Bank and Gaza.

Abbas has consistently indicated that he wants to negotiate with militants rather than confront them head-on, but Kidwa's comments were an unusually blunt statement of that policy.

"Weapons are legal as long as the occupation exists," Kidwa told Palestinian television.

Israeli Deputy Premier Ehud Olmert likened the failure to disarm militant groups to "dropping a cluster bomb" on efforts to maintain calm and restart peace talks.

"Very simply, either they [the Palestinian Authority] fight terrorism or we will," Olmert told Israel Radio.

Israeli authorities imposed a closure on the Palestinian territories yesterday as Jews were ushering in the holiday of Shavuot, which ends tonight.

The Israeli military generally bars Palestinians from entering Israel during Jewish holidays, citing concern over potential terrorist attacks.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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