King calls Palestinian talks

Hamas, Fatah accept invitation to meet in Mecca to halt fighting

January 29, 2007|By New York Times News Service

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JERUSALEM --King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called yesterday on rival Palestinian factions to hold emergency talks in the holy city of Mecca in the most recent bid to halt some of the worst-ever Palestinian internal fighting.

As the two main factions, Hamas and Fatah, waged a fourth straight day of fighting in the Gaza Strip, leaders from both groups said they would take up the invitation by the Saudi monarch, though no date was set.

"I call on my brothers, the Palestinian people, represented by their leaders, to put an immediate end to this tragedy and to abide by righteousness," the king said in an announcement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

Saudi Arabia does not have a tradition of such direct involvement in Palestinian affairs. But as one of the more important figures in the Arab world, the king, by his decision to hold talks in Mecca, could increase pressure on Palestinian leaders to find a compromise.

However, efforts by other Arab states have failed to stop the bloodshed. Egypt has been acting as a go-between for months, and Syria organized talks this month between Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and leader of the Fatah faction, and Khaled Meshal, the political leader in exile of the Islamic group Hamas. But no breakthrough was achieved.

The feud between the factions has grown increasingly bitter since Hamas won parliamentary elections a year ago, unseating Fatah, the dominant Palestinian political movement for decades. Hamas controls the Cabinet and the Legislature, but as president, Abbas has a range of powers, and many members of the security forces remain loyal to Fatah.

In Gaza City yesterday, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas made a renewed plea to halt the fighting, but to no avail.

"We call on all the Palestinian people to protect national unity, to make the language of dialogue and reason prevail, to withdraw weapons from the streets," Haniyeh told an emergency session of the Palestinian Cabinet.

Gunmen from the two sides exchanged fire throughout the day in several Gaza City neighborhoods, prompting residents in some of the hardest-hit areas to flee to the homes of relatives in less volatile areas.

A bomb exploded outside the front door of a home belonging to a bodyguard for Muhammad Dahlan, a senior Fatah figure and ally of Abbas. No one was hurt in the blast.

Also, Fatah blamed Hamas for mortar and anti-tank rounds that were fired at the police headquarters in Gaza City, which is controlled by Fatah.

Many shops were closed, and the streets were largely empty after the factions put up concrete barriers to block some roads. Both Hamas and Fatah said members of their group had been kidnapped by the other side, a tactic that has become common, though many of those seized are later released unharmed.

The latest deaths included a 12-year-old boy shot late Saturday, three Hamas fighters killed yesterday and one Fatah fighter who died of injuries suffered previously, Palestinian hospital officials said.

The violence spread to Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank, where several Hamas members were seized in separate kidnappings, one at the city's Education Ministry and the other at a bank, Palestinian security officials said. Most were later released.

The clashes, which have claimed more than 20 lives and wounded dozens since erupting Thursday, forced a breakdown in the latest round of talks to form a unity government.

The Palestinian factions have battled periodically in recent years, and there was a sharp rise in tensions after Hamas defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections.

Months of negotiations failed to produce a unity government, and the internecine violence became an almost daily event in December. After a period of relative calm this month, the gunbattles broke out again last week. More than 50 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza over the past two months, and there also have been sporadic clashes in the West Bank.

Abbas has said on several occasions that he will propose early elections if the factions cannot reach agreement on a unity government. But holding elections would be extremely difficult at a time when the Palestinian Authority is broke and political tensions are boiling over.

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