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Six die in West Bank as Abbas force strikes Hamas

QALQILYA, West Bank (Reuters) - Six people were killed on Sunday when forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas raided a Hamas hideout, just days after he promised in Washington to fulfil his security commitments.

A member of the Palestinian security forces walks near the scene of a clash between Palestinian policemen and Hamas gunmen in the West Bank town of Qalqilya May 31, 2009. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

The violence erupted when police encircled a house in the West Bank town of Qalqilya where a top Hamas field commander, Mohammad Samman, and his deputy Mohammad Yasin, had taken refuge, witnesses and security officials said.

Both Hamas men and the homeowner died in the shootout, along with three policemen. Dozens of bullet holes in walls and furniture in the home attested to the ferocity of the fighting.

It was the bloodiest internal Palestinian clash in the occupied West Bank since the Western-backed Abbas launched a security drive and revived peace talks with Israel in 2007 after breaking with Hamas over its takeover of the Gaza Strip.

Samman and Yasin had ignored calls to surrender, witnesses said. Palestinian security forces spokesman Adnan Damiri said police had tried to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff.

“Thousands of shots were fired at the security forces,” Damiri said, adding that large quantities of explosives were discovered in the Hamas hideout.

After the raid, Hamas threatened to call off Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation talks with Fatah that had been scheduled to resume in Cairo in July.

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Fawzhi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip said: “We in Hamas have come closer than ever to taking a decision to suspend our participation in the dialogue.”

A spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing accused the Abbas-aligned forces of being “loyal to the Zionists” and alleged he was directly responsible for “the crime and its consequences.”

Despite the violence, the operation could boost Abbas’s credentials in Washington at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama is at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

“IRON FIST” THREAT

“The Palestinian security forces will strike with an iron fist against anyone harming the interests of the Palestinian people,” Abbas, describing the Hamas men as “outlaws,” was quoted as saying by the Palestinian WAFA news agency.

Obama hosted Abbas in the White House on Thursday and complimented him on security steps he has taken in the West Bank under the 2003 peace “road map” that includes a call for a crackdown on militants.

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Abbas, speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, said he was committed to “law and order” in the West Bank and to fulfilling “all of our obligations under the road map, from A to Z.”

Obama noted that Abbas had been working with U.S. General Keith Dayton, who is helping the Palestinian Authority train its security forces. It was not immediately clear if U.S.-trained forces took part in the Qalqilya operation.

Israel, which has not met its road map commitments to halt the expansion of Jewish settlements, has said the Palestinians need to do more to meet their security obligations.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, whose responsibilities include overseeing settlement construction, will hold talks in Washington this week in a bid to ease friction with Obama.

Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr in Jerusalem, Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; writing by Jeffrey Heller, Dan Williams, and Allyn Fisher-Ilan editing by Michael Roddy

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