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Gunmen kill 3 children of Palestinian official

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Three young children of a senior Palestinian intelligence officer were killed today in a drive-by shooting in a street crowded with hundreds of schoolchildren, an unprecedented attack that could ignite widespread factional fighting.

The gunmen pumped dozens of bullets into a car carrying the children of intelligence officer Baha Balousheh, a loyalist of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement. A decade ago, Balousheh was a lead interrogator in a crackdown on the now-ruling Hamas movement.

Three of Balousheh's children, ranging in age from six to 10, were killed, in addition to their driver, hospital officials said.

Four more people were wounded in the attack in Palestine Street, lined with nine schools. Baha Balousheh was not in the area.

As the shots rang out, children dropped to the ground or fled, screaming.

"I was walking with my young brother, Wael, who is 9, and we just crossed the street in order to take him to the school when shooting took place," said 12-year-old Fadwa Nabulsi, still shaken by the bloody scene.

"We saw fire coming from one car. We started screaming and children started running. I was crying, and I lost Wael for about half an hour. Then I found him hiding in a felafel shop."

Dozens of Palestinian police in the area were trying to calm the children and help them locate their parents. Hundreds of anxious parents rushed to Gaza City's Shifa Hospital to get word on their children.

Gaza has been plagued by factional violence. Today's direct attack on children, however, was unprecedented.

The attack came a day after gunmen shot at the interior minister's convoy in Gaza amid growing tension between the governing Hamas and Abbas's Fatah faction.

Interior Minister Saeed Seyam, a senior Hamas leader, was unharmed in that incident.

Tension has been rising over the failure of Hamas and the formerly dominant Fatah to form a unity government that Palestinians had hoped would end a crippling Western boycott against the Hamas administration.

Aides to Abbas said on Saturday that the president planned to call early elections after the unity talks foundered.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh accused Abbas of trying to topple his government, which came to power after Hamas defeated Fatah in elections in January.

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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