Fatah, Hamas fights leave at least 15 dead

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Fighting between rival Palestinian forces continued to rage across the Gaza Strip yesterday, killing at least 15 people in violence that laid waste to a days-old cease-fire.

As gunmen battled in the streets, Egyptian officials sought to broker a fresh truce between the ruling Hamas movement and its main rival, Fatah. By day's end, the two sides announced that they had tentatively agreed to restore the cease-fire reached Tuesday, but it seemed at best a fragile deal as heavily armed men continued to stalk the streets.


Some of the most intense shooting took place as gunmen from the ruling Hamas movement attacked bases used by security forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who leads Fatah.

Hamas men launched mortars and crude Kassam rockets at a main base for security forces in Gaza City and at Abbas' compound nearby. Abbas was not in Gaza at the time.


Fatah forces struck back with heavy machine guns and set fire to a building at Islamic University, a Hamas stronghold, where more fierce exchanges took place. Hours later, attackers set fire to Al Quds University, which is affiliated with Fatah.

The dead included at least two children and three Hamas fighters. Most of those killed were Fatah members from the various security forces, including a regional commander of the national intelligence service.

More than 140 people were injured in yesterday's violence, a continuation of skirmishing a night earlier that killed six people and left dozens more hurt. The earlier fighting began when Hamas gunmen attacked a truck convoy that the group said was carrying arms from Egypt to Fatah's forces. Fatah and Egyptian officials denied the assertion.

For most of the day yesterday, gunfire crackled through the largely deserted streets of Gaza City. Many people remained indoors, and restaurants along the main avenues were shuttered.

"I call on everybody, regardless of their political affiliation, to put an end to this bloodletting," Abbas said, speaking to reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Abbas is expected to travel to Saudi Arabia next week to meet with Hamas leaders for new talks on a power-sharing arrangement that could end the factional tensions. Saudi officials had invited the two sides for talks in the Muslim holy city of Mecca. Abbas met with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus, Syria, last month, but the two leaders did not reach any agreement.

The groups have been locked in a power struggle since Hamas defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections in January 2006. Several cease-fire agreements have broken down as tensions between the rival militias surged and political leaders' appeals for calm went unheeded.

Yesterday's flare-up came as Middle East peace mediators were meeting in Washington to consider how to bolster Abbas and restart the stalled diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians.


Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to travel to the region this month for a three-way meeting with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that is meant to spur informal discussions over the outlines of a possible final agreement.

But prospects for a breakthrough appear quite remote, given the weak political standing of both Olmert and Abbas. Olmert remains highly unpopular among Israeli voters since the war in Lebanon last year, and Abbas is hobbled by the turmoil with Hamas.

Ken Ellingwood and Rushdi abu Alouf write for the Los Angeles Times.