Tue, Feb 06, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Weapons fall silent on the streets of Gaza

CLINGING TO HOPE Palestinian officials were optimistic about the peaceful respite after three days of violence that saw 28 Palestinians killed and around 260 wounded


A shaky ceasefire between warring Palestinian factions in Gaza teetered on Sunday but then appeared to take hold as the guns, mortars and grenades fell silent for the first time in days.

As quiet returned to Gaza City's streets, residents ventured tentatively out of their homes amid the first bout of calm since Thursday.

Officials from the ruling Islamist Hamas movement and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas's rival Fatah faction sounded an optimistic note after meeting in Gaza City in a bid to bolster the fledgling ceasefire.

"There has been visible progress toward applying the truce agreement between the two movements," Fatah spokesman Abdel Hakim Awad said after the meeting.

"The streets are almost empty of gunmen and we hope the agreement will hold so that peace and security can return," he said.

The rival factions also began releasing hostages, negotiators said, a key condition of the ceasefire which was agreed to on Friday night by Abbas and exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.

Meshaal said on Sunday that crunch talks in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, tomorrow between the feuding factions must not fail.

"I say to Fatah that it is forbidden to fail. Only dialogue can settle political disagreements," he told a news conference in Damascus.

"We want a true partnership between Fatah and Hamas. We are in the same boat. There is no other way to strengthen national unity," he added in an appeal to Fatah.

The duelling factions remained perilously close to resuming hostilities, however.

Hamas accused security forces loyal to Fatah of violating the ceasefire by attempting to storm the home of a Hamas militant.

"It seems that there is a group of putschists who don't want a truce," Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said. "We hold Fatah responsible for all that is happening."

The rare peaceful respite follows three days of vicious bloodletting that saw 28 Palestinians killed and around 260 wounded in some of the fiercest clashes since Hamas ousted Abbas's Fatah in elections last year.

Just hours earlier sporadic bursts of gunfire and occasional explosions had echoed across the city center.

Before dawn, two mortar rounds slammed into the headquarters of Abbas's elite presidential guard, just 100m from his seafront offices, a security source said.

Mortar shells and grenades were also fired at the nearby campus of the Al-Azhar University, controlled by Abbas's Fatah faction.

Two members of the presidential guard died on Sunday morning from wounds suffered during a Friday attack on their training camp in southern Gaza City.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya announced he would join Abbas and Meshaal for the crisis talks in the Muslim holy city of Mecca today, hosted by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he remained confident the Palestinian mini-summit could lead to a national unity deal despite the fighting.

"We are working towards a national unity government. It is about to be finished, unless there are any surprises," Mubarak said after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Cairo on Saturday.

Fatah and Hamas have tried in vain for months to form a broad coalition acceptable to Western donors, who imposed a crippling aid freeze on the Palestinian Authority when the Islamist-led government took power last March.

The UN warned on Saturday that the upsurge in violence was making it "extremely difficult for us to fulfil our humanitarian mandates. The implications of this for a population already facing extreme hardship are grave," it said.

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