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Abbas declares state of emergency

GAZA (Reuters) - As Islamist gunmen routed his last forces in Gaza, Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the Palestinian government on Thursday and declared a state of emergency after six days of bloody faction fighting.

But while the United States rallied support for Abbas, Hamas fighters stormed remaining strongholds of his secular Fatah group in the Gaza Strip, finally seizing the presidential compound, the last bastion of Abbas’s authority in the enclave.

The violence has ripped apart Palestinian hopes for a state.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said his government would ignore the “hasty decision” to dismiss it, decreed by Abbas from his power base in the West Bank. Jubilant Hamas gunmen hunted down Fatah loyalists in Gaza, killing some and parading one top militant’s mutilated body through the streets.

Abbas said in a statement he was “declaring a state of emergency in all the lands of the Palestinian Authority because of the criminal war in the Gaza Strip ... and military coup”.

Haniyeh blamed Fatah for pushing the Islamists to react.

Medics said at least 30 people were killed during the day, taking the death toll since Saturday to more than 110 in a conflict that has driven a wedge between Gaza and the West Bank and leaves an aggressive Islamist entity on Israel’s borders.

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Abbas, successor to the late Yasser Arafat who embraced negotiation with Israel to try to found a Palestinian state in the two territories, said he would form an emergency cabinet to rule by decree and held out the prospect of early elections.

But gun law, not the constitution, held sway in Gaza.

Cheering Hamas fighters hoisted green Islamist flags over Fatah buildings and pounded Abbas’s Gaza compound with heavy weaponry.

The White House accused them of “acts of terror” and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Abbas to emphasise support for Palestinian “moderates” but acknowledged finding troops for any international force for Gaza would be tough.

Some of Gaza’s impoverished 1.5 million people view with trepidation the success of religious rulers set on defying a crippling Israeli and Western embargo on the Strip. But Hamas, which enjoys support from Iran and Syria, has many supporters.

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Nailing Washington’s colours to Fatah’s mast, a tactic some say hurts Abbas with his own people, Rice said: “President Abbas has exercised his lawful authority ... We fully support him.”

Analysts believe such talk may signal an easing of year-old anti-Hamas sanctions on the West Bank to bolster Abbas. The sanctions were introduced after Haniyeh and Hamas won a majority in parliament at an election in January last year.

Exact casualty figures were unclear, as was the fate of Fatah fighters seen led away, bare-chested, after surrendering. There were unconfirmed reports of prisoners being shot.

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A Fatah official in Gaza said he had seen eight colleagues gunned down while he escaped death “by a miracle”.

Hamas’s armed wing said it “executed” Samih al-Madhoun of Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an ally of Abbas security aide Mohammad Dahlan. His body was dragged through a refugee camp.

Some Fatah gunmen retaliated against Hamas in the West Bank, seizing Hamas supporters in the towns of Jenin and in Nablus. The Brigades said its men killed a Hamas supporter in Nablus.

Even businesses owned by Hamas supporters were targeted by angry crowds in the territory occupied by Israel, where some 2.5 million Palestinians live, in the hills around Jerusalem.

Haniyeh, who unlike Abbas spoke in person on television, blamed Fatah for abusing its power and persecuting Islamists. “They pushed people into reacting,” he said.

But he called for restraint from his fighters and offered talks: “I call for a national and comprehensive dialogue to begin immediately.”

For Hamas fighters in Gaza, some in camouflage uniforms, the fall of one Fatah base after another was cause for celebration. They fired in the air and handed out sweets.

“Allahu akbar! (God is Greatest),” one chanted through a megaphone from the roof of the beachfront headquarters of Fatah’s intelligence service.

Others paraded in the streets and showed off weaponry seized from Fatah, whose forces the United States has helped train and arm in a bid to counter the rise of Hamas -- to little effect.

Diplomats told Reuters an aide to Abbas had admitted hundreds of Fatah’s men ran from the battle or ran out of bullets during the fighting.

Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi and Wafa Amr in Ramallah and Ori Lewis, Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Jeffrey Heller and Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem