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Competing security forces face off in a Gaza confrontation

GAZA CITY -- The new Hamas security force clashed with Fatah fighters in Gaza yesterday, culminating a day of tense standoffs as the rivals competed for control of the Palestinian territory.

Two Palestinian policemen were shot in the legs during the exchange of fire near the parliament building and police headquarters, officials said. A Hamas gunman was also wounded, the group said. His condition was not known.

The Palestinian police, who are mostly Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas loyalists, were instructed by radio to respond with force to any attacks by Hamas forces.

An Associated Press reporter on the scene said Hamas forces closed off the streets leading to police headquarters, the stronghold of the Fatah loyalists, and sporadic exchanges of fire could be heard every few minutes, half an hour after the clash began. Police were running to their posts.

Khaled Abu Hilal, spokesman of the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry, said unknown gunmen opened fire on the police headquarters from a moving car. Police apparently thought the Hamas forces nearby were responsible and fired at them.

Abu Hilal said all sides were working to calm the situation, and Egyptian diplomats were also involved.

Earlier, Abbas ordered the Islamic militants to remove the militia from the streets, but Hamas refused. Officials in Abbas's office said he would not use force, fearing a civil war. Abbas is the leader of Fatah.

During the day, about 2,000 Fatah supporters in military formation double-timed through a main street of Gaza City, shouting, ''Jerusalem, the president, the homeland," clapping and whistling as they passed Hamas gunmen.

Similar scenes played out up and down the seaside territory. Competing forces patrolled, each side studiously ignoring the other. In the southern city of Khan Younis, a Hamas leader accused Fatah gunmen of firing at his house and threatened reprisals. No one was hurt.

The power struggle began after Hamas was the surprise winner of a January parliamentary election, forming a government several weeks later to replace Fatah, the movement that ruled Palestinian politics for decades under Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004.

Abbas, elected to replace Arafat in January 2005, has another three years to serve as president, regardless of who controls the Cabinet. He has been systematically trying to reduce Hamas power, while trying to persuade the world to deal with him directly, including funneling needed foreign aid through his office to bypass the Hamas-led government, which is facing a Western boycott.

Hamas is not making direct threats against Abbas. Its tactic has been to go about its business and ignore the demands of the 70-year-old Fatah leader, who has yet to cut an impressive figure as Arafat's successor.

Hamas called Abbas's bluff yesterday, flatly refusing to follow his order to take its new 3,000-man force off the streets. Abbas aide Tayeb Abdel Rahim said the president would deal with this as a legal matter, ruling out an armed confrontation.

Interior Minister Said Siyam of Hamas deployed the unit Wednesday, in defiance of Abbas's orders to disband it. Armed Hamas militants took up positions in the streets, and in one case put down a peaceful protest by college graduates seeking teaching jobs. Fatah responded with demonstrations in Gaza City and stepped-up patrols throughout the territory.

General Suleiman Hilles, commander of Fatah-dominated Palestinian security forces in the West Bank and Gaza, said the forces were deployed to send a message that ''the Palestinian police is the only side that can maintain law and order."

However, the lines were not clearly drawn, since some of the police officers also back Hamas. Several hundred police officers met yesterday with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and professed their loyalty to the government. Haniyeh told the officers that the new unit of militants was formed legally and that it would work alongside the security forces.

Even before the January election put Hamas in power, Abbas avoided confronting Hamas and other militant groups, hoping to tame them through negotiations. Now he clearly fears an all-out civil war, though activists on all sides insist their weapons should be directed against Israel, not one another.

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