Hamas Takes Fight to Gaza City; 27 Killed in Clashes

Fatah-linked Gaza clan numbering thousands surrender to Hamas; key southern town Khan Yunis seized by Hamas.

Hamas militants waged an assault on the three main security forces compounds in Gaza City on Wednesday, seizing control over most of the Gaza Strip, in clashes with the rival Fatah movement which left at least 27 people dead.

Hamas' armed wing said "the coup-seekers" - a reference to Fatah - in that area have until Friday evening to hand over their weapons.

Hamas' assault on Gaza City, the main city in the coastal strip, came hours after the key southern town of Khan Yunis fell to Hamas. The Islamic militants detonated a one-ton bomb underneath the Preventative Security headquarters there, nearly demolishing the building and killing at least one person, Palestinian security and medical officials said.

The security forces said they had lost control of the town.

"Khan Yunis is finished, but we are still holding on in [the southern town] Rafah," said Ziad Sarafandi, a senior security official.

On Wednesday evening, Hamas militants fired rockets and mortar shells at the Preventive Security headquarters in Gaza City, and called from a nearby mosque loudspeakers for the Fatah loyalists inside to surrender. The security officers in the building were returning small arms fire.

The Hamas forces attacked the building of the intelligence service in the Shati refugee camp next to Gaza City, firing rockets and mortar shells, taking over the rooftops in nearby houses and cutting off the roads to prevent reinforcements from arriving.

Hamas gunmen in high-rise buildings also fired at the Gaza City office and home of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. The forces guarding the buildings returned fire.

Abbas was in the West Bank at the time of the fighting. Near the Islamic University, a Hamas stronghold, security forces and Hamas militants also waged a gunbattle, security officials said.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said the wake of the killings of its staff that it was suspending most of its activities in Gaza. Another UNRWA employee has also been killed in the Strip.

UNRWA said it couldn't distribute food to the 30 percent of the Gaza Strip residents who rely on international food aid.

The agency's Gaza director, John Bing, said the agency would scale back its operations, but insisted, "We are scaling back, we are not pulling back."

At least 14 other Palestinians were killed by Hamas fire Wednesday, including 13 members of Fatah.

Elsewhere in Gaza City, hundreds of members of the Fatah-allied Bakr clan, who have engaged in fierce battles with Hamas in recent months, surrendered Wednesday to the militants, witnesses said.

The Bakr clan, numbering thousands of people, lives in a seaside neighborhood. Some 200 of the Bakr men are armed militants.

On Wednesday afternoon, Hamas forces entered the area and led hundreds of men, women and children, their hands raised behind their heads, to a nearby mosque, said local resident, Nael Ghoben.

Witnesses reported that after the surrender, two Bakr women tried to leave the area and take a sick girl to a hospital, and were shot on the street by Hamas gunmen.

In a bid to escape the onslaught, Fatah gunmen detonated an explosive device along the Philadelphi route near the Gaza-Egypt border, and fled into Egypt.

Hamas leaders have blamed the Gaza fighting on Abbas, saying his security forces were corrupt and riddled with criminals. Abbas called the fighting madness and appealed to Hamas' exiled leader, Khaled Meshal, to end the violence.

The fighting, which has largely kept to the Gaza Strip, also spread to the West Bank on Wednesday, with Hamas and Fatah gunmen trading fire in Nablus.

Gunmen from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a military wing of Fatah, tried to seize employees of a pro-Hamas TV company. Hamas gunmen rushed to the scene, sparking a firefight.

Al-Aqsa leaders said the attack was retaliation for Hamas attacks on positions of Fatah-allied security forces in Gaza. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Gazans protest violence

In Gaza City, a civilian was killed Wednesday when some 1,000 Palestinians marched through the streets chanting "stop the killing" - only to draw gunfire from Hamas militants at a nearby police station seized from Fatah a day earlier.

Several hundred tribal leaders, women, children and Islamic Jihad militants turned out for the protest, which was initiated by Egyptian mediators.

Witnesses said Hamas gunmen shot at the protesters as they approached the house of the Bakr family - Fatah loyalists - trapping the demonstrators.

Protester Bilal Qurashali said he saw a man shot in the head. "We are unable to get out." The place is closed, he said.

Health officials said another 14 protesters were wounded by bullets and brought to the hospital in civilian cars because ambulances couldn't navigate the heavy fire.

Separately, Hamas gunmen opened fire from a high-rise building at about 1,000 protesters in Khan Yunis, wounding one and breaking up the demonstration.

Hamas-controlled GazaHamas has systematically taken control of security positions in northern and southern Gaza, and apparently left the main battle for the Strip's security and political nerve center in Gaza City for last.

Eight Fatah men were killed in fierce fighting near the home of senior Fatah official Maher Mekdad. The Fatah official was able to escape, but Hamas took control of the area.

Hamas also seized control of the refugee camps in the central Gaza Strip, after it swept into the central Gaza headquarters of Abbas' powerful National Security Forces facing only token resistance.

Hamas said Fatah militants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the home of its deputy information minister, setting the house ablaze but causing no injuries.

Hamas said it also seized and bulldozed a key Fatah outpost that controls Gaza's main north-south road.