Five Palestinians were killed in a resurgence of factional violence in Gaza, leading to fears an already fragile truce between the rival Hamas and Fatah factions would completely collapse.
After nightfall on Wedneday, warring sides in southern Gaza agreed to stop the violence, but it was unclear if this would end the clashes.
The latest fighting came two days after Fatah and Hamas militants carried out a series of kidnappings and engaged in gunbattles in violation of a mid-December truce between the two groups, which are vying for control of the Palestinian government.
Rival gunmen poured into the streets of the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya after a 25-year-old militant from President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party was shot and killed. A woman was shot in the head and killed in the ensuing gunbattle, and 12 other people were moderately hurt, hospital and security officials said. Later in the afternoon, a group of gunmen ambushed Fatah-allied Palestinian security officers in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, blasting their police car with bullets and a rocket-propelled grenade, and killing two of the officers, according to witnesses.
A third officer died later of his wounds. The security officers were trying to take another officer to the hospital after he was wounded in an earlier clash, Fatah officials said in a statement. The officers had stormed a house where they believed a kidnapped colleague was being held, it said. Fatah officials blamed Hamas militiamen for the attack, while Hamas said Fatah militants had initiated the incident. In a text message sent to reporters Wednesday evening, the Fatah leadership in Khan Younis blamed Hamas for trying to "increase chaos" in Gaza and said loyalists had now been instructed to "defend themselves by any means necessary."
After nightfall, three smaller militant groups brought Hamas and Fatah officials in together in Khan Younis and forged an accord to remove gunmen from the streets and release the individuals who were kidnapped, according to a statement released after the meeting. However, it was unclear if this would lead to a truce in the rest of the territory.
Also Wednesday, the French news agency Agence France-Presse demanded the immediate release of one of its photographers who had been abducted at gunpoint in Gaza City on Monday. In a statement, AFP said there has been no word on the fate of the photographer, Jaime Razuri, 50, a Peruvian.
"Despite assurances from Palestinian officials that they are doing everything possible to help with the search, we are deeply concerned over Jaime's health and safety," the statement said. In the past, most journalists and other foreigners kidnapped in Gaza have been released unharmed after a few hours. An exception was the abduction of two Fox News journalists last summer who were held for two weeks before being released.
The Committee to Protect Journalists also called for Razuri's release.
"These kidnappings have already curtailed the ability of international journalists to work in Gaza, stifling coverage of a story of enormous global significance," said Joel Simon, the New York-based group's executive director.
Talks between Fatah and Hamas on forming a national unity government broke down in November, fueling the escalation in violence. Abbas has since threatened to call an early election, which Hamas said it would boycott, calling it a coup attempt. Abbas wants to resume peace talks with Israel, while Hamas rejects the existence of the Jewish state.
Late on Monday, clashes in the Jebaliya refugee camp near Gaza City broke a weeklong lull in fighting between the two groups. In the past few weeks, 17 people have been killed in the internal fighting, leading to fears of civil war.
Meanwhile, aides to Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said Wednesday he plans to cut short a tour of Arab nations to return to Gaza. He had been scheduled to travel later this week to Jordan, which has offered to host a meeting between Haniyeh and Abbas in an effort to defuse the tensions between their factions. Both Haniyeh and Abbas have agreed in principle to such a meeting, but no date has been announced.