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After Shootout, Palestinians Seek To Calm Infighting, Lessen Tension

By Greg Myre
THE NEW YORK TIMES


JERUSALEM

The main Palestinian political parties, Hamas and Fatah, sought to reduce tensions on Monday after a predawn shootout in the southern Gaza Strip left three of their members dead and 10 people wounded in the worst internal Palestinian violence since the Hamas-led government came to power.

Members of the two factions have battled periodically since the militant Islamic group Hamas won the Palestinian elections in January, ending decades of political dominance by Fatah, the party of the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas. But the clash on Monday was the most heated so far.

The Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniya, a leader of Hamas, said he had “issued necessary measures to end the bloodshed and tension.”

Fatah leaders, including Azzam al-Ahmad, who leads the faction in parliament, called for calm.

On Saturday, Abbas and Haniya met in Gaza City, and the two were expected to hold further talks on the friction between their rival parties and the worsening Palestinian financial crisis.

Each side blamed the other for the trouble that began before dawn on Monday. Fatah gunmen kidnapped several members of Hamas in a farming village outside Khan Yunis in southern Gaza, Hamas officials said. At about the same time, Hamas members kidnapped several Fatah men. Gun battles broke out soon after, with Hamas members firing an anti-tank rocket at Fatah gunmen in a jeep, according to witnesses and the Palestinian security forces.

When the shooting ended around daybreak, two Fatah members and one Hamas member were dead. Most of the wounded were civilians who had been caught in the crossfire, Palestinian security officials said.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday, the offices of the Palestinian parliament caught on fire, forcing an evacuation of the building. The blaze was apparently caused by an electrical problem, officials said, and no one was injured.

Meanwhile, a World Bank report issued Monday said that international aid to the Palestinian Authority had dropped more sharply than anticipated, and that 2006 may become “the worst year in the West Bank and Gaza’s dismal recent economic history.”

The Palestinians have depended heavily on foreign aid, which has totaled about $1 billion annually in recent years. But since Hamas came to power in March, the United States, the European Union and Israel have all suspended direct payments to the Palestinian Authority.

The World Bank report warned that the Palestinian Authority’s continued inability to pay government salaries “could precipitate breakdowns in discipline among the Palestinian security forces, making it difficult for government, commerce and relief efforts to operate.”

“Complex structures such as school systems are not machines to be switched on and off at will,” the report added.

In a letter to the so-called quartet of international peace mediators — the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — Abbas called on Monday for international aid to resume.