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Hamas pulls back its fighters in Gaza

Gesture to Abbas is seen in move

GAZA CITY -- The Hamas government, composed of Islamic militants, withdrew its militia from the streets of Gaza yesterday, pulling back from an increasingly bloody confrontation with security forces loyal to the moderate president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas made the conciliatory signal as Hamas grappled with Abbas's ultimatum that it either accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel -- implicitly recognizing the Jewish state -- or be challenged in a referendum. Hamas appeared to be divided, with some in the group threatening to fight the idea and others embracing it.

The power struggle between Hamas and Abbas has intensified in recent weeks. Street fighting has left 10 dead and dozens wounded. Abbas's bold challenge to Hamas, in giving the group 10 days to moderate or to face a referendum, could either resolve the standoff or drive the political rivals toward bloodier conflict.

In other developments yesterday, three Palestinian teenagers were killed and a fourth was seriously wounded in an explosion in northern Gaza. Medics initially said the youths, ages 15 to 19, had been killed when Israeli artillery hit a house, but the Israeli military said the teen-agers had been handling explosives.

Also yesterday, a Palestinian farmer was killed by Israeli artillery fire on northern Gaza, hospital officials said.

Hamas sent mixed signals to Abbas yesterday. It ordered its 3,000-member militia off the streets, two weeks after deploying it in a challenge to Abbas-allied forces. Hamas officials said yesterday that the unit was temporarily withdrawing and insisted that it would not be disbanded.

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