GAZA (Reuters) – Palestinian militants have burst into a mourning tent set up for Yasser Arafat and fired shots in protest at the presence of moderate successor Mahmoud Abbas, who was unhurt in a clash in which two security men were killed.
The incident on Sunday was indicative of the factional lawlessness plaguing Gaza and threatening the interim collective leadership of veteran moderates formed to usher Palestinians towards elections on January 9 for a successor to President Arafat.
“It was not an assassination attempt,” Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, later told reporters in his Gaza City office. “Emotions were high. There was random gunfire and pushing in the crowd.
The chaos erupted after gunmen from Arafat’s faction-ridden Fatah movement shouting “No to Abu Mazen” walked by Abbas as he stood outside the tent and began firing shots into the air.
The gunmen’s rifles were pointed upwards, and not at Abu Mazen, as they fired more bursts into the air, witnesses said.
Members of Arafat’s presidential guard hustled Abbas, 69, into the tent and threw him to the ground for his safety as the militants burst in.
Chaos ensued as gunmen and bodyguards began shooting at each other. At the end of the clash one of the bodyguards, in an olive drab uniform, lay dead from a head wound in the tent.
Medics later said another bodyguard was killed and four people were wounded. Witnesses said the gunmen withdrew and no arrests were made.
Abbas had been on a visit to accept condolences for the death of Arafat, who died in a French military hospital near Paris on Thursday at the age of 75.
A critic of violence in a 4-year-old Palestinian uprising, Abbas has been chosen as chairman of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, one of the posts held by Arafat, a symbol of his people’s struggle for a homeland.
“The exchange of fire was the result of friction between bodyguards and armed men. This is the whole story,” said Tawfiq Tirawi, head of Palestinian Intelligence.