RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian militants fired Wednesday at Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ West Bank headquarters while he was in the compound, but he was not injured, security officials said.
Later, the 15 gunmen — who said they belong to an armed group linked to the ruling Fatah movement — went on a shooting rampage throughout the city of Ramallah, damaging several restaurants and forcing shops to close, witnesses and officials said.
Internal fighting has plagued the Palestinian territories for months, largely the result of a breakdown in authority and command caused by more than four years of fighting with Israel that severely debilitated the security forces and other Palestinian Authority institutions.
Abbas — who was elected president in a Jan. 9 vote after the November death of Yasser Arafat — has vowed to bring law and order to Palestinian areas, and reform his overlapping and corruption-plagued security forces.
The gunmen — members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades — said they went on their rampage after Palestinian security officials forced six of them out of the Ramallah headquarters, where they had sought refuge after Israel began hunting down fugitives shortly after violence erupted in September 2000.
Arafat had allowed more than 20 fugitives to remain in his compound, and Abbas had followed suit.
A Palestinian security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the security forces asked the six militants to either hand over their weapons or leave the compound after “they were involved in kidnappings, blackmailing, harming people, shooting them.”
“They were warned many times to stop their behavior and actions,” the official said.
Another security official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the security forces had still not decided how to handle the militants but were “considering taking harsh steps against them.”
“They have crossed the red line. They attacked the presidential headquarters. They are defying the Palestinian Authority and now we have to take harsh steps against them, otherwise they will control the city and spread chaos,” the official said.
An Al Aqsa spokesman, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, denied the gunmen belonged to his group and called them “criminals who should be in jail.”