GAZA – Gunmen fired two mortar bombs at President Mahmoud Abbas’s office in Gaza on Sunday after Abbas forces took over two ministries run by the ruling Hamas movement, as tension spiraled between the Palestinian factions.
Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas leader, accused Abbas’s security men of attempting a “military coup” by overrunning the ministries. He demanded they leave or else be arrested, a move that could provoke further violence.
Forces loyal to Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah fought street and rooftop gunbattles across Gaza through the day. Residents said it was the heaviest bout of internal fighting in living memory.
The mounting unrest followed Abbas’s call on Saturday for fresh presidential and parliamentary elections, a dramatic move that sought to lift crippling Western sanctions imposed on the 9-month-old Hamas government.
“What is happening is a real military coup, assassinations, attempted assassinations, the occupation of headquarters and ministries,” a visibly angry Zahar told a news conference.
A Palestinian security source said two mortar bombs landed less than 100 meters (330 feet) from Abbas’s office, wounding at least five members of his personal guard. The president was not in Gaza at the time.
Abbas’s forces had earlier sealed off the area around his home in Gaza.
A 19-year-old university student was shot during a gunfight near the president’s compound as she took cover and later died of her wounds, hospital officials said.
At least 15 other people were wounded besides the presidential guards in clashes, including a French journalist for the Liberation newspaper, who was shot in the leg.
Abbas’s 4,000-strong presidential guard, backed by militants loyal to Fatah, took over the Hamas-run Agriculture and Transport ministries, moving to secure parts of Gaza City.
Earlier, a convoy carrying Zahar was fired on. Zahar was unharmed in the attack, blamed by his aides on Abbas’s forces.
In his first public comments since Abbas called for early elections, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas leader, said new polls could cause greater unrest and urged calm. Hamas has said it will boycott new elections.
“The Palestinian government calls on all people to show restraint and to alleviate tensions,” Haniyeh said.
After months of factional violence that has raised fears of civil war, Abbas said early polls should be held as soon as possible. But he also said efforts to form a unity government should continue, despite repeated failure.
The security clampdown by Abbas’s special guard followed a dawn raid by masked gunmen on a training camp they use in which one guard was killed and at least five were wounded.
The raid involved dozens of gunmen in uniforms similar to those worn by Hamas fighters, a senior member of the presidential guard said. Hamas denied involvement.
On Sunday, Abbas met members of the Palestinian electoral commission to work on planning for a new vote, which officials said was not expected to take place until mid-2007.
Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, took office in March after beating the long-dominant Fatah in parliamentary elections, prompting the West to cut direct aid.
Hamas has insisted it will never recognize the Jewish state, making it unclear how any unity government could get off the ground and satisfy the West, which has demanded that Hamas recognize Israel and renounce violence.
The Palestinian basic law, which acts as a constitution, has no provision for early elections. Fatah says Abbas can call them through a presidential decree. Hamas says that would be illegal.
In many respects, Abbas’s move is a gamble as there is no guarantee Fatah would win any elections.
However, a poll released on Sunday showed Fatah gaining at the expense of Hamas. It said if elections were held today, Fatah would win 42 percent to 36 percent for Hamas.
The poll also showed that 61 percent of Palestinians favored holding early elections, with 37 percent opposed.