Violence Erupts Across Gaza City as Palestinian Factions Battle Over Call for New Elections

Factional violence exploded across Gaza City on Sunday, with gunmen shooting up the Palestinian foreign minister's convoy and militants launching mortar shells at President Mahmoud Abbas' office in a daylong wave of attacks that killed at least two and wounded 13 others.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh accused his rival Abbas of inflaming the violent political crisis by calling for early elections and said his Hamas group would boycott the poll. Abbas, a moderate from Fatah, called for new elections to resolve the political deadlock that has paralyzed the Palestinian government since the hardline Hamas militant group won January parliamentary elections.

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Hamas' electoral victory split the Palestinian government, with Abbas seeking peace with Israel and Hamas refusing to even recognize the Jewish state's existence. The political tensions have repeatedly turned violent, with the chaos spiraling out of control since unknown gunmen killed the three young sons of a Fatah-allied security chief last week.

Despite talk of an impending truce between the Palestinian factions, gunbattles raged on Sunday night.

Earlier in the day, Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar's motorcade came under fire as it drove near the foreign ministry in Gaza City. Zahar was unharmed, but the attack unleashed a ferocious gunbattle that lasted more than an hour in downtown Gaza, the worst fighting since unity government talks broke down late last month. Medical officials said a 19-year-old woman was killed in the crossfire.

Zahar blamed top Fatah leaders for the attack on him, saying they were "fully responsible" for what happened "and what will happen."

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Sporadic fighting erupted into the evening. Hamas gunmen opened fire at a demonstration of tens of thousands of Fatah supporters in northern Gaza, wounding at least one person, and unknown militants fired at least two mortars at Abbas' office in Gaza City. Hours later, they launched another mortar shell.

Five pro-Fatah security men and a 45-year-old woman were wounded, officials said. Abbas was in the West Bank at the time.

In an earlier attack blamed on Hamas, dozens of gunmen raided a training camp of Abbas' Presidential Guard near the president's residence, killing a member of the elite force.

After nightfall, the bullet-riddled body of a top security officer affiliated with Fatah, Col. Adnan Rahmi, was discovered in northern Gaza several hours after he disappeared, Palestinian medical officials and his family said. No group took responsibility, but Rahmi's family blamed Hamas for the killing.

A French reporter, Didier Francois, 46, of the newspaper Liberation, was wounded in the leg by a bullet during the wave of violence, according to his newspaper.

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Saleh Zidan, the Gaza head of the small Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told Al-Jazeera satellite television Sunday night that his group had helped broker a cease-fire deal that would remove armed men from the streets.

But the violence persisted, with Hamas and Fatah gunmen waging a street battle in the northern Gaza town of Jebaliya, and Hamas gunmen exchanging fire with Fatah loyalists outside parliament in Gaza City. Hamas militants also clashed with Abbas' bodyguard unit outside his Gaza City residence.

Hamas militants in light trucks were seen carrying rifles and rocket launchers as they patrolled and set up roadblocks in a Gaza neighborhood.

In an apparent effort to restrain its supporters, Fatah issued a statement late Sunday calling on its fighters not to fire unless there is a serious threat on their lives. However, the statement also accused Hamas of trying to overthrow Abbas.

Abbas briefed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the situation Sunday and his efforts to resolve it, said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an Abbas spokesman.

Despite the violence, Abbas signaled he was determined to push ahead with the plan he announced Saturday to hold new elections. He met with members of the Central Election Commission at his headquarters Sunday to discuss a possible date. The head of the panel said it would take at least three months to prepare new presidential and parliament elections.

"The message of the meeting is that he is serious, that he is saying `don't doubt my words.'"' a top aide, Saeb Erekat, said. Erekat said he believed elections would be held around June.

Haniyeh rejected the call for new elections.

"We confirm that the Palestinian government refuses the invitation to early elections because it is unconstitutional and could cause tension among Palestinians," Haniyeh said.

Abbas' gamble, after months of indecision, could easily backfire, driving the Palestinians toward all-out civil war or giving Hamas the opportunity to win control of the presidency as well as the parliament and Cabinet that it now controls. But the political deadlock in the Palestinian Authority, and the increasing poverty and violence it has caused, may have left Abbas with little choice.

A poll released Sunday placed Abbas and Haniyeh in a statistical tie in a presidential race. Abbas would win 46 percent, compared with 45 percent for Haniyeh. In parliamentary elections, Fatah would defeat Hamas by a 42-36 margin. The survey was conducted by the independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research among 1,270 Palestinians and had an error margin of 3 percentage points.

Abbas has suggested he is still leaving the door open to a national unity government with Hamas, which he hoped would end the Palestinian Authority's international isolation, though the angry exchanges between the two camps and growing factional violence made this increasingly unlikely.

In his speech Saturday, Abbas said a unity government was still the best option, but that he had despaired of persuading Hamas to enter into a coalition with Fatah.

The Hamas government has drawn crushing international sanctions over its militantly anti-Israel stand, but has refused to recognize Israel as demanded by the West.

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