- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2007

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Hamas fighters overran two of the rival Fatah movement’s most important security command centers in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, and witnesses said the victors dragged vanquished gunmen into the street and shot them to death execution-style.

Hamas also seized control of Rafah in the south, Gaza’s third-largest city, according to witnesses and security officials. It was the second main Gaza city to fall to the militants, who captured nearby Khan Younis on Wednesday, and gave Hamas control of the porous border with Egypt, which has been the source of arms smuggling.

Responding to Hamas’ gains, President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah declared a state of emergency, fired Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, dissolved the Hamas-Fatah coalition and said he would form a new government.

Abbas, who is considering early elections, considers the Hamas fighters who have seized control of most of the Fatah-allied security headquarters in Gaza to be an “outlaw militia,” said his aide, Tayeb Abdel Rahim.

Hamas captured the Preventive Security headquarters and the intelligence services building in Gaza City, major advances in the Islamic group’s attempts to take over Gaza. Hamas also demanded that Fatah surrender its last big security installation in the city.

After the rout at the security headquarters, some of the Hamas fighters knelt outside, touching their foreheads to the ground in prayer. Others led Fatah gunmen out of the building, some shirtless or in their underwear, holding their arms in the air. Several of the Fatah men flinched as the crack of gunfire split the air.

A witness, who identified himself only as Amjad, said men were killed as their wives and children watched.

“They are executing them one by one,” Amjad, who lives in a building overlooking the Preventive Security complex, said by telephone. “They are carrying one of them on their shoulders, putting him on a sand dune, turning him around and shooting.”

The killers ignored appeals from residents to spare the men’s lives, said Amjad, who declined to give his full name, fearing reprisal.

Preventive Security is an especially despised target of Hamas because the agency carried out bloody crackdowns against the Islamic group in the 1990s.

Fatah officials said Hamas shot and killed seven of its fighters outside the Preventive Security building. A doctor at Shifa Hospital said he examined two bodies that had been shot in the head at close range. The officials and the doctor spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri denied the reports of execution-style killings. “Whoever was killed was killed in clashes, he said.

Militants and civilians looted the compound, hauling out computers, documents, office equipment, furniture and TVs.

Abbas, for the first time in five days of fierce fighting, ordered his elite presidential guard to strike back. But his forces were crumbling fast under the onslaught by the better-armed and better-disciplined Islamic fighters.

In all, 14 fighters and civilians were killed and 80 wounded in the battle for the Preventive Security complex, bringing the day’s death toll to 26, hospital and security officials said. About 90 people, mostly fighters but also women and children, have been killed since a spike in violence Sunday sent Gaza into civil war.

The two factions have warred sporadically since Hamas took power from Fatah last year, but never with such intensity. Hamas reluctantly brought Fatah into the coalition in March to quell earlier violence, but the uneasy partnership began crumbling last month over control of the powerful security forces.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, leaving the Palestinians responsible for the first time for running their own day-to-day affairs. Israel maintained control of Gaza’s airspace and coastal waters, and monitors the Gaza-Egypt border by video-link.

Hamas had been tightening its grip on the Preventive Security complex for three days, stepping up its assault late Wednesday with a barrage of bullets, grenades, mortar rounds and land mines that continued until it fell. Electricity and phone lines were cut, and roads leading to the complex were blocked.

“We are telling our people that the past era has ended and will not return,” Islam Shahawan, a spokesman for Hamas’ militia, told Hamas radio. “The era of justice and Islamic rule have arrived.”

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