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Deadly escalation in Fatah-Hamas feud

VIOLENCE in the Gaza Strip threatened to spiral out of control yesterday after a Fatah member was thrown handcuffed from the roof of a 15-storey building, the highest in Gaza, and gunmen opened fire on the home of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas.

The Fatah man, Mohammed Sweirki, 25, served in the elite Presidential Guard loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He was among several Fatah members detained at a roadblock by masked men believed to belong to Hamas.

In retaliation, Fatah gunmen shot dead the imam of Gaza's largest mosque, Mohammed al-Rifati, 40, a supporter of Hamas, after attacking his home with rocket-propelled grenades. Hamas vowed revenge.

At least one other Palestinian, a senior figure in Hamas, was shot dead in Hamas-Fatah gun battles during the day and about 15 were wounded. Hundreds of rival gunmen exchanged fire from rooftops and street corners, using rifles, machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

During the night, gunmen opened fire on Mr Haniya's home in the Shati refugee camp next to Gaza City. No casualties were reported.

It was reportedly the first attack on Mr Haniya's residence by Palestinians, although Israeli warplanes have twice fired rockets close to his home recently.

Mr Haniya called on all factions to cease fire and withdraw armed men from the streets so 24,000 high school students in Gaza could begin taking their final examinations. With the help of Egyptian intermediaries, a tenuous truce was achieved.

About 616 Palestinians have been killed in factional fighting since Hamas defeated Fatah in elections early last year, according to a report by a leading Palestinian rights group, released last week. Fifty have died in internal fighting in the past month alone.

The Palestinian Journalists Association issued a statement yesterday condemning the use by militants of a jeep bearing media markings in a failed attempt to kidnap Israeli soldiers across the Gaza border at the weekend. The association said this endangered journalists "and restricts their ability to perform their professional and national duties".

Israeli troops killed one of the militants involved in the attempted abduction, but three others succeeded in escaping back into the Gaza Strip.

In response, Israeli helicopter gunships attacked facilities in Gaza belonging to the two organisations that participated in the operation - Islamic Jihad and Fatah's armed wing, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. The air-to-ground rockets destroyed offices and metal workshops but there was only one reported injury.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israeli attacks would continue "as long as it takes" to block Palestinian attempts to infiltrate the area and fire rockets into Israel.

For more than a week, Hamas has halted its firing of rockets at Israeli towns.

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