Three Hamas Militants Killed in Clashes With Fatah in Gaza Strip

Hamas officials in Nablus and Ramallah kidnapped, Hamas vows to double size of militia following Abbas's ruling.

Three Hamas militants were killed and five were wounded Saturday evening in clashes with a Fatah-related family hours after Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas declared Hamas security forces in Gaza illegal.

The militants, all members of the the Diri family, were killed in an exchange of fire between Hamas and members of the Durmush family, some of whom are affiliated with Fatah, in the Sabra neighborhood of Gaza City.

Four Hamas militants were kidnapped during the incident.

Another member of Hamas was kidnapped in a separate incident in the Gaza Strip. No further details were available. Earlier, two Hamas officials were kidnapped in separate incidents in the West Bank.

In Nablus, an An- Najah National University lecturer affiliated with Hamas was wounded by six militants apparently belonging to Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

The lecturer, Marwan Kadoumi, was shot in his legs when the militants entered his home. He was evacuated to the hospital in moderate condition.

Earlier Saturday, pro-Fatah gunmen attacked Hamas officials in two separate incidents in the West Bank, security officials said.

In the first incident, gunmen stopped the car of Nablus' deputy mayor, Mahdi al-Khamdali of Hamas, pulled him out and took him away in a separate car, security officials said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the officials said they believed the kidnappers were supporters of the rival Fatah group.

In Ramallah, meanwhile, gunmen stormed the offices of the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry, shot the office manager, Ihab Suliman, in the legs and took him away, Palestinian security officials said. The man, also a Hamas supporter, was released in a nearby town and hospitalized, the officials said.

Fighting between Abbas's Fatah faction and Hamas has surged since talks on forming a unity government collapsed and Abbas called for early parliamentary and presidential elections. Hamas accused Abbas of mounting a coup.

Late Saturday, Abbas' office said he spoke to United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, briefing her on the current situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip ahead of her upcoming visit.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak called on the Palestinians to urgently halt their fighting. Mubarak urged factions to "place Palestinian interests above any other considerations and work together," the official MENA news agency said.

Abbas says Hamas security force in Gaza is illegalIn a statement released on Saturday, Abbas declared that Hamas security forces in Gaza not integrated with PA forces would now be considered illegal.

Abbas made the announcement two days after members of the Hamas force attacked the home of a senior security commander in Gaza, killing the man and seven of his bodyguards. The man was a member of the Preventive Security force, which is loyal to Abbas' Fatah party.

"In light of continued security chaos and assassinations that got to a number of our fighters ... and in light of the failure of existing agencies and security apparatuses in imposing law and order and protecting the security of the citizens, President Mahmoud Abbas decided to reshuffle the security forces and its leadership and to consider the (Hamas) executive force, officers and members, illegal and outside the law," Abbas' office said in a statement.

With Abbas, who was elected in a separate presidential vote, claiming authority over most of the security forces, Hamas last year formed its own unit, known as the "Executive Force."

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas backed the Executive Force and accused Abbas of deepening the rift between the two camps.

"I'm completely convinced that there are those who don't want the Palestinian scene to enjoy calm and stability or to create the appropriate atmosphere for starting serious and deep dialogue aimed at reaching a national unity government," he said.

Members of the black-clad Hamas militia are visible throughout Gaza, and have periodically clashed with the existing pro-Fatah security forces.

More than two dozen people have been killed in the latest wave of factional violence, which erupted early last month. Thursday's attack on the Fatah commander's home in northern Gaza was the bloodiest single battle in the standoff to date.

Abbas has agreed in recent months to integrate the Hamas unit into existing security forces. But those efforts have failed to make progress.

In his statement Saturday, Abbas reiterated the offer but said he would not wait forever. "It will be dealt with accordingly so long as it is not immediately folded into the legal security forces," Abbas said.

Shortly after Abbas's statement was made public, Hamas vowed to double the size of the executive force to 12,000 personnel.

"A decision was taken to increase the number of the executive force to 12,000," said Islam Shahwan, a spokesman of the unit.

"We call upon all sincere citizens to prepare themselves to join the force," Shahwan added.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum called Abbas' announcement "misplaced and useless," while Khaled Abu Hilal, spokesman for the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry, accused Abbas of giving a "green light" for attacks on Hamas security men. The militia reports to the Interior Ministry.

Abu Hilal called Abbas' decision hasty, saying it was "a green light to those who seek to shed the blood of the Executive Force members." The unit has repeatedly clashed with rival security forces loyal to Abbas' Fatah movement in recent weeks.

Al-Aksa Martyrs Bridgades force strike in HebronEarlier on Saturday, Gunmen from the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades forced a strike in the West Bank city of Hebron, preventing stores from opening and clearing the streets of traffic.

The militants forced the strike as a protest against recent attacks by Hamas on its members in the Gaza Strip that have left a number of people dead in recent days in factional fighting between the two groups.

In the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday, unknown assailants burned the house of Mohammed Ah-Sharafi, a member of the Hamas faction in the Palestinian parliament. In response, Hamas members have threatened to burn the house of Fatah cabinet member Sufian Abu zeida.

Hamas cleric gunned down in GazaA local religious leader who was a frequent critic of the Islamic militant group Hamas was killed in a drive-by shooting Friday as he walked out of a Gaza mosque, witnesses and medical officials said.

Fatah accused Hamas of killing the cleric, saying in a statement: "Sheik Nasar was killed after he came out of the mosque where he criticized Hamas after the crime committed by some of its gunmen yesterday."

Hamas officials said they were investigating the killing. Nasar's assailants pulled up to him in a white car and sped away after the shooting, witnesses said.

Nasar, 50, was not openly affiliated with any political party, but he was a well-known figure in the refugee camp and often preached against Hamas. Shortly before the shooting, Nasar had criticized Thursday's bloody attack on the home of Col. Mohammed Ghayeb, a top Fatah official in northern Gaza, witnesses said.

In his sermon, Nasar warned that God would punish the killers of Ghayeb and his bodyguards. He also said God would punish Palestinian rulers for not preventing the attack, said Jibril Awwar, a friend of the preacher who was lightly wounded in the shooting.

Nasar did not mention Hamas by name, but Awwar said the preacher's message was aimed at the group, which controls most of the Palestinian government.

Hamas: U.S. is funding a 'revolt' against our governmentSenior Hamas official Mushir al-Masri blamed the U.S. on Friday for attempting to promote a revolt against the Hamas government, after U.S. documents showed that the Bush administration will provide $86.4 million to strengthen security forces loyal to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

"We demand that Abbas reject this U.S. policy, which is tearing the Palestinian people apart," he said.

The new policy would expand U.S. involvement in Abbas' power struggle with Hamas.

The U.S. money will be used to "assist the Palestinian Authority presidency in fulfilling PA commitments under the road map to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism and establish law and order in the West Bank and Gaza," a U.S. government document obtained by Reuters said.

Speaking to reporters after Friday prayers in Gaza City, Haniyeh urged Palestinians not to let the violence spill over to the West Bank and to focus on fighting Israel. "Our fight is not an internal one, it's against the occupation," Haniyeh said.

Haniyeh's words were echoed by senior West Bank Fatah official Jibril Rajoub, speaking in the town of Bil'in to supporters celebrating the movement's 42nd anniversary.

"Our battle with Hamas is not a battle of assassination, kidnapping or revenge. Our battle with Hamas is a democratic moral battle," he told a crowd of about 100. "Our battle is with the occupation, not with each other."

Thousands of Palestinians carried bodies draped in yellow flags through pouring rain Friday in a funeral procession for seven Fatah men killed in the bloodiest single battle in weeks of factional fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Dozens of Fatah gunmen marched in the procession, firing in the air and calling for vengeance against the rival Hamas group, which is locked in a power struggle with Fatah over control of the Palestinian government.

Eighth Palestinian dies from wounds sustained in Thursday's attackA Fatah security man on Friday died of wounds sustained in a battle against Hamas militants the previous day, medical officials said, raising the death toll to eight in the bloodiest single battle in weeks of factional fighting in the Gaza Strip.

The bodyguard had been wounded in a Thursday's assault by Hamas gunman on the home of a top Fatah security official. The official and six other bodyguards were killed in Thursday's fighting.