GAZA (Reuters) - Three Hamas policemen and six pro-Fatah gunmen were killed in the Gaza Strip on Saturday in the deadliest confrontation between the rival factions since Hamas seized control of the coastal territory a year ago.
The fighting erupted when Hamas gunmen surrounded the Shejaia suburb in Gaza City to arrest 11 suspects, who the Islamist group believes were behind bombings that killed five Hamas gunmen and a girl last Friday.
Members of the Helles clan, affiliated with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, surrendered to Hamas after clashes that also wounded five Hamas policemen and 90 other people, including 16 children, a Hamas official said.
Clan leader Ahmed Helles and 179 of his men escaped to the border with Israel. An Israeli army spokesman said soldiers allowed all 180 men to cross the border and some were evacuated to Israeli hospitals for treatment.
Hamas Interior Minister Saeed Seyam, speaking in Gaza City, said police arrested dozens of gunmen, including four of the 11 men Hamas believes were behind the bombings, and confiscated large quantities of arms and explosives.
“We can confirm that Fatah are implicated in the bombings,” Seyam said, accusing pro-Fatah cells of inciting violence against the Hamas government. Fatah denies the charges.
The official Palestinian news agency WAFA said Abbas had telephoned Ahmed Helles, a senior Fatah representative in the Gaza Strip, to express solidarity. Abbas called Hamas’s campaign “unacceptable” and a blow to his call for national dialogue.
The violence could hamper Egyptian efforts to reconcile Fatah with Hamas. Tension between the two spiked last year after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from pro-Abbas forces.
Ehab al-Ghsain, a spokesman for Hamas’s Interior Ministry, said: “The Helles family has become a military force and its members have been attacking, abducting and even killing people. We must put an end to their attacks on innocent citizens.”
Last week’s blasts touched off tit-for-tat crackdowns by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fatah in the West Bank. Hundreds of Palestinians have since been arrested.
On Thursday, Abbas ordered his Fatah-dominated security forces to release all pro-Hamas detainees in the West Bank. Twenty were released on Friday but dozens remained in custody, a security official in the occupied West Bank said.
In the West Bank city of Nablus, Fatah militants kidnapped Mohammed Ghazal, a Hamas official, but released him hours later.
Hamas said it had released more than half the hundreds of Fatah activists in its custody, including Ibrahim Abu an-Naja and nine other Fatah officials.
As part of its crackdown, Hamas closed down a radio station run by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a militant group allied with Fatah.
An official said the station’s broadcasts were inciting violence against Hamas’s forces and government in the Gaza Strip. The PFLP confirmed the station had stopped broadcasting.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, pro-Abbas forces clashed with supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist group whose goal is to establish a pan-national Muslim state including the Palestinian territories and Israel.
Witnesses said policemen were trying to prevent the group from holding an “illegal gathering” at a school in the city. The Palestinian Authority refused the group permission to hold the gathering, citing its links to Hamas.
(Additional reporting by Atef Saad in Nablus, Mohammad Assadi and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Joseph Nasr in Jerusalem)
Writing by Joseph Nasr and Avida Landau in Jerusalem; editing by Tim Pearce