Palestinian clashes wound 5 before ceasefire talks

GAZA (Reuters) – Palestinian factions clashed in Gaza on Saturday, wounding five people in fierce gunfire near two universities ahead of talks to patch up a shattered ceasefire.

Seventeen people were killed on Friday. The fighting between Hamas and Fatah gunmen followed a call by President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah for early elections, a step the governing Islamist Hamas movement condemned as a coup.

Schools and shops were closed in Gaza City and residents near the pro-Hamas Islamic University and neighboring Al-Azhar University, a Fatah bastion, hid in the inner rooms of their homes to escape gunfire.

Abu Amr, a 40-year-old Gazan with three school-age children, said he was keeping them at home even if schools re-opened.

“I will not send them until I am sure that there are no gunmen in the street and we stop hearing the sounds of bullets and explosions,” he said. He described the repeatedly violated ceasefire agreements as “a joke and a broken record”.

The five people wounded in Saturday’s shooting near the universities included three civilians. Fatah and Hamas accused each other of firing rocket-propelled grenades.

In the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, Hamas forces tried to blow up the local headquarters of the Preventive Security Forces, led by Fatah loyalists, a Fatah security officer said. When they failed to destroy it, they set it ablaze, he said.

Following talks by phone late on Friday between Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal and Abbas, the two sides agreed to attempt another ceasefire and to withdraw their gunmen from the streets, a senior Fatah leader said.

Officials were due to meet later on Saturday to hammer out a fuller deal. But neither side had implemented Friday’s agreement to rein in their armed forces and dismantle checkpoints across the narrow coastal strip, home to 1.5 million Palestinians.

QUARTET CONCERN

Hamas took control of the Palestinian government in March after beating Fatah in an election.

Facing U.S.-led sanctions because of its refusal to formally recognize Israel, renounce violence and commit to existing peace accords, Hamas has struggled to govern but says holding another election would amount to a coup.

At least 23 Palestinians have been killed and more than 200 wounded since the latest ceasefire broke down on Thursday when Hamas fighters ambushed what they said was a convoy carrying military equipment to Abbas’s forces.

Meeting in Washington on Friday, the quartet of Middle East peace brokers backed a U.S. push to try to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks through Abbas, while voicing concern about violence among Palestinians.

The United States has pledged $86 million to bolster thousands of Abbas’s security forces. Documents obtained by Reuters show the assistance program could cover at least 13,500 troops loyal to Abbas.

Hamas accuses Washington of fuelling the fighting to bring down the government.

At the urging of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, Abbas and Meshaal agreed to hold meetings on Tuesday in the holy Muslim city of Mecca to try to resolve their differences over a unity government, Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdainah said.

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