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Hamas fighters in control in Gaza

world Updated: Jun 15, 2007 13:12 IST

Reuters
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Hamas Islamist fighters picked through the bloody battle debris of the Palestinian presidential compound in Gaza on Friday, rejoicing at the rout of their well-armed, secular rivals from the president's Fatah faction.

Gunmen fired in the air to hold back civilians eager to loot what had been the last bastion of President Mahmoud Abbas's forces in the coastal enclave as others drove off in armored vehicles belonging to the Western-backed Presidential Guard.

"We have taken the authority," one fighter said as he took a car. Green Hamas flags flew over the compound as it was stripped of anything moveable following its capture late on Thursday.

Hours after Abbas declared a state of emergency and dismissed the Hamas-led government, forces loyal to Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, the prime minister in that government, seemed in complete control in the Gaza Strip. Fatah, once led by the late Yasser Arafat, remains in command in the larger West Bank.

But after six days of civil war in Gaza, the two Palestinian territories now stand divided by a political gulf wider than the 45 km (30 miles) of Israel that separates them physically, and Arafat's hopes of negotiating a common statehood lie in ruins.

Hamas fighters pointed out bloody pools where they said guards at Fatah's last bastion in Gaza, Abbas's ransacked presidential compound, shot themselves dead rather than surrender late on Thursday.

The United States, which had helped train and arm the Fatah forces which were roundly defeated in Gaza, pledged its full support for Abbas and the emergency cabinet he is due to name later on Friday, describing him as a "moderate" committed to a negotiated peace with Israel.

Such support could translate into an easing of the international economic sanctions imposed on the Palestinian Authority after Hamas won parliamentary elections last year.

The schism may now allow funds to be channeled to the West Bank authorities while an embargo on Gaza is maintained. Israel said Hamas must be stopped from acquiring more arms.

Hamas shared with fellow Islamists an objective to "kick out peace" in the Middle East, senior Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad told Army Radio. "This is why there is a need to stop weapons smuggling."

He added that a truce with Israel over the past months had been used to build up Hamas's strength and said the Jewish state could support the establishment of an international force in Gaza -- something the United States, United Nations and European Union have all said is an idea worth considering.

However, as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, finding a government willing to commit its troops in the face of Hamas opposition to the plan would be "hard".

DEATH TOLL

Medics said at least 30 people were killed on Thursday, taking the death toll to more than 110 in six days of conflict which leaves an aggressive Islamist entity on Israel's borders.

Abbas, from his power base in the West Bank, accused Hamas of staging a coup in Gaza. Haniyeh, a senior leader of Hamas which enjoys support from Iran and Syria, said his government would ignore Abbas's "hasty decision" to dismiss it.

Fatah and Hamas formed a unity government in March in a deal brokered at Mecca in an effort to overcome their differences, but these were plagued by violence between their supporters.

Abbas said in a statement he was "declaring a state of emergency in all the lands of the Palestinian Authority because of the criminal war in the Gaza Strip ... and military coup".

Some of Gaza's impoverished 1.5 million people view with trepidation the success of Islamists set on defying a crippling Israeli and Western embargo. But Hamas has many supporters.

Nailing Washington's colors to Fatah's mast, a tactic some say hurts Abbas's position at home, Rice said: "President Abbas has exercised his lawful authority ... We fully support him.

Hamas's armed wing said it "executed" Samih al-Madhoun of Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an ally of Abbas security aide Mohammad Dahlan. His body was dragged through a refugee camp.

Some Fatah gunmen retaliated against Hamas in the West Bank, seizing Hamas supporters in the towns of Jenin and in Nablus. The Brigades said its men killed a Hamas supporter in Nablus.

Haniyeh blamed Fatah for abusing its power and persecuting Islamists. "They pushed people into reacting," he said.

But he called for restraint from his fighters and offered talks: "I call for a national and comprehensive dialogue."