Friday, June 15, 2007

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Hamas fighters took over two security command centers and vanquished the rival Fatah”s movement in the Gaza Strip yesterday, prompting beleaguered Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to dissolve the Hamas-Fatah unity government.

Hamas also seized control of Rafah in the south, Gaza”s third-largest city, witnesses and security officials said. It was the second main Gaza city to fall to the militants, who captured nearby Khan Younis on Wednesday and gave Hamas control of the porous border with Egypt, which has been the source of arms smuggling.

Mr. Abbas of Fatah declared a state of emergency, fired Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, dissolved the Hamas-Fatah coalition and said he would form a new government.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly supported Mr. Abbas’ decisions.

Mr. Haniyeh, however, rejected Mr. Abbas’ declaration, calling it “hasty” and saying he would maintain the unity government. Mr. Haniyeh said the situation was “not suitable for unilateral decisions.”

He said at a press conference early this morning that the Hamas militia would impose law and order in Gaza “firmly, decisively and legally.” But he rejected the idea of a Palestinian state in Gaza only, run by Hamas.

In Gaza City, a correspondent for The Washington Times watched as Hamas fighters pulled a hard-line Fatah commander from a building and fatally shot him in the street before bystanders and Hamas militants spat on the body.

“We have killed the traitor Samih Madhun,” yelled one of the gunmen as he fired his Kalashnikov into their air. “We will, God willing, kill all those evil men who looked after the Zionists’ interests.”

Mr. Abbas, who is considering early elections, considers the Hamas fighters who have seized control of most of the Fatah-allied security headquarters in Gaza to be an “outlaw militia,” said his aide Tayeb Abdel Rahim.

Other aides said Mr. Abbas also was planning to call for the deployment of a multinational force, but Mr. Abdel Rahim made no mention of that at the press conference.

Hamas captured the Preventive Security Service headquarters and the intelligence services building in Gaza City, major advances in the Islamic group”s attempts to take over Gaza. Hamas also demanded that Fatah surrender its last big security installation in the city.

After the rout at the security headquarters, some of the Hamas fighters knelt outside, touching their foreheads to the ground in prayer.

Others led Fatah gunmen out of the building, some shirtless or in their underwear, holding their arms in the air. Several of the Fatah men flinched as the crack of gunfire split the air.

A witness, who identified himself only as Amjad, said men were killed as their wives and children watched.

“They are executing them one by one,” Amjad, who lives in a building overlooking the Preventive Security complex, said by telephone. “They are carrying one of them on their shoulders, putting him on a sand dune, turning him around and shooting.”

The killers ignored appeals from residents to spare the men”s lives, said Amjad, who declined to give his full name, fearing reprisal.

Preventive Security is an especially despised target of Hamas because the agency carried out bloody crackdowns against the Islamic group in the 1990s.

Fatah officials said Hamas fatally shot seven fighters outside the Preventive Security building. A doctor at Shifa Hospital said he examined two bodies that had been shot in the head at close range. The officials and the doctor spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri denied the reports of execution-style killings.

“Whoever was killed was killed in clashes,” he said.

Militants and civilians looted the compound, hauling out computers, documents, office equipment, furniture and televisions.

Mr. Abbas, for the first time in five days of fierce fighting, ordered his elite presidential guard to strike back. But his forces were crumbling fast under the onslaught by the better-armed and better-disciplined Islamic fighters.

Early this morning, a Hamas activist was fatally shot in Nablus, the first person to be killed in the West Bank after days of violence in Gaza. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a violent Fatah offshoot, took responsibility.

Fatah and Hamas have warred sporadically since Hamas took power from Fatah after last year’s elections, but never with such intensity. Hamas reluctantly brought Fatah into the coalition in March to quell earlier violence, but the uneasy partnership began crumbling last month over control of the powerful security forces.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, leaving the Palestinians responsible for the first time for running their own day-to-day affairs. Israel maintains control of Gaza”s airspace and coastal waters and monitors the Gaza-Egypt border by video link.

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