Gulf & Middle East
16 dead in heavy Gaza city clashes
May 16, 2007 - 7:18:06 PM

Gaza city, May 16 - Gun battles between supporters of the rival Palestinian Hamas and Fatah movements escalated throughout Gaza City Wednesday, killing at least 16 people and raising the total death toll in four days of fighting to at least 44.

The toll made the current wave of factional clashes the worst since Hamas beat Fatah in January 2005 parliamentary elections.

At the same time, Palestinian militants intensified their rocket fire at southern Israel, sending off at least 31 Gaza-made Qassam rockets, about a third of which struck the nearby Israeli town of Sderot.

Israel responded by launching an air strike at a Hamas base in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, killing at least four Palestinians and injuring eight, first aid officials said.

In the latest Palestinian attack, Hamas gunmen opened fire on a Fatah police jeep in Gaza City Wednesday, killing five detained Hamas members as the vehicle was on its way to the Preventive Security headquarters, first aid officials confirmed.

It was initially unclear if the driver, a member of the Fatah-dominated Preventive Security, was also killed. Witnesses said the attackers were unaware that arrested Hamas militants were inside.

A sniper in a shootout in central Gaza City killed a Hamas militant and three members of the National Security Force, also dominated by Fatah, were killed in exchanges of fire in the so-called 'hot zone.' Another Fatah security official was also killed elsewhere.

The 'hot zone' area includes Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Gaza residence, the Preventive Security headquarters and the house of its chief Rashid Abu Shbak, which came under attack overnight killing six security guards.

Some 100 Hamas militants attacked Abu Shbak's villa at about 4.30 a.m., firing missiles and rocket-propelled grenades and sparking an intense gun battle with guards that lasted for more than an hour, witnesses said.

At least 10 people were also wounded, Fatah spokesman Abdel Kahim Awad said.

Abu Shbak, who Hamas say has trespassed on the authority of the Hamas-appointed interior minister, was not inside the house during the attack and was said to be in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Witnesses said his bodyguards managed to secure safe departure for his wife and children before the rocket-propelled grenades hit the villa.

Hamas militants surrounded a residential building in western Gaza City and ordered its 52 residents out in the street to stand as a 'human shield' in front of a nearby building and prevent Fatah gunmen from storming it, a local journalist who was at the scene told a local radio station.

The building near the Islamic University serves as a Hamas military wing base.

Ambulances were unable to reach the areas of exchanges of fire to evacuate dead and injured stranded in several buildings, the radio said.

Wednesday's renewed clashes came despite another ceasefire announced overnight by Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, a Hamas member, at an Egyptian-brokered meeting between the two rival groups.

The deadly fighting in the past four days between militants of the two sides is the first since they formed a government of national unity on March 17 - with the main aim of ending Palestinian factional violence.

It was sparked by the deployment of security forces answering to Abbas and Abu Shbak in Gaza Saturday as part of a plan to end lawlessness in the Palestinian autonomous areas.

But former interior minister Hani al-Qawasmi, a Hamas-appointed independent who resigned Monday, said the deployment was not part of his own security plan. As interior minister, he controlled opposing security forces, including an Executive Force, made up mainly of members of Hamas' military wing.

Control over security forces has been at the centre of the power struggle which developed between Abbas and his prime minister, both of whom have opposing political platforms, since Hamas beat Fatah in January 2005 legislative elections.

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