- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2006

1:46 p.m.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said today he is pushing ahead with early elections — despite factional fighting that intensified after his initial call for a vote — and appealed for international help in restarting peace talks with Israel.

Mr. Abbas said he is ready to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert any time. “We need each other,” he said, adopting a much warmer tone than in the past.

Mr. Abbas spoke at a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who praised the Palestinian leader and urged the international community to rally behind him.

Mr. Abbas hopes a peace breakthrough with Israel can persuade his people to support him in a showdown with Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls parliament and the Cabinet. Mr. Abbas said Saturday he is seeking new presidential and parliamentary elections to end months of deadlock with Hamas, whose refusal to moderate has isolated the Palestinians internationally and driven them deeper into an economic crisis.

Hamas has accused Mr. Abbas of trying to illegally topple its government, and already raging fighting between Hamas and Abbas-allied security forces in Gaza worsened after Mr. Abbas’ announcement.

The week-old wave of violence in Gaza appeared to be diminishing today after warring Palestinian groups said they had negotiated a truce.

Far fewer gunmen were seen in the streets than in the preceding days, but fighting still broke out in the middle of Gaza City early today, when about two dozen masked militants from the rival groups, armed with rifles, grenades and rocket launchers, faced off in a gun battle that left a 16-year-old bystander with a bullet wound in the neck.

Sporadic violence continued into the evening. Masked militants shot and seriously wounded a Fatah member in Gaza City, and Hamas loyalists burned down the shop of a brother of a local Fatah leader in northern Gaza and kidnapped another brother. Masked gunmen also kidnapped the brother of a Fatah lawmaker, officials said.

Fatah militants responded by burning down a Hamas office and kidnapping a local Hamas leader.

Despite the violence, both sides said they would honor the cease-fire. “We are trying to halt all breeches,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

In a statement from Hamas’ headquarters in Syria, the group said its exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal, spoke to several regional leaders and key mediators — including Qatar’s emir and Egypt’s intelligence chief — to discuss “how to contain the current tension in the Palestinian area.”

Mr. Mashaal stressed Hamas’ commitment to “avoid inter-Palestinian fighting, dialogue as the only way to solve differences and problems with Fatah, and forming a national unity government.”

The fighting spiraled out of control after unknown gunmen killed the three young sons of a Fatah-allied security chief last week. Since then, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was shot at by unknown gunmen, the foreign minister’s convoy also was targeted, and mortar shells were launched at Mr. Abbas’ Gaza office.

Late yesterday, the bullet-riddled body of a top security officer affiliated with Fatah, Col. Adnan Rahmi, was discovered in northern Gaza hours after he disappeared, Palestinian medical officials and his family said. He was buried today after a funeral procession attended by hundreds of Fatah militants and security officers.

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