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Palestinian gunfighting rages despite truce, mediation offer

A Palestinian inspected a burned building yesterday at the Islamic University in Gaza City. A massive fire broke out amid heavy clashes between Fatah and Hamas in nearby neighborhoods. Leaders of the two factions are set to meet Tuesday in Mecca for a mediation session hosted by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. (Mahmud Hams/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

GAZA CITY -- Ignoring a truce and Arab mediation offers, Hamas and Fatah fighters exchanged gunfire in upscale beachfront neighborhoods yesterday, and Hamas gunmen threatened to attack high-rise buildings unless residents force rival snipers off their rooftops.

Bursts of gunfire alternated with periods of calm, and in areas of Gaza City not affected by the fighting, people tried to go about their lives.

Boys played soccer in the streets, horse-drawn carts maneuvered through alleys, and shoppers stocked up on supplies for the next round of battle.

Nasser Mushtaha, who owns a high-rise near President Mahmoud Abbas's compound, said members of Abbas's Presidential Guard were posted on his roof and at the entrance to the building. He said he received phone calls from Hamas members, who warned they would blow up the building unless the troops left. Some of the guardsmen refused.

Mushtaha complained about his building being used as an outpost. " What is our fault? We are neither Fatah nor Hamas," he said, noting dozens of windows had already been shattered by bullets.

In the Sheik Radwan neighborhood, Ali Ustaz used a lull to buy a battery-powered radio so that he could follow developments despite frequent power cuts. "There is no hope for a solution," Ustaz said, referring to an elusive power-sharing deal between Abbas, the Fatah leader, and the Islamic militant Hamas, the two factions grappling for control of the Palestinian government.

Abbas and Hamas's supreme leader, Khaled Mashall, are to meet Tuesday in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia for a reconciliation meeting to be hosted by Saudi King Abdullah. The highest-profile mediation effort in several weeks of fighting is increasing pressure on both sides to end their power struggle and form a coalition government.

However, an especially bloody round of fighting -- 25 killed and more than 230 wounded since Thursday -- has deepened resentment on both sides. Stepping up provocations, gunmen have attacked their rivals' strongholds, such as the Hamas-dominated Islamic University and Abbas's presidential compound.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said yesterday he held Abbas responsible for the continued fighting and demanded that he rein in his security forces. Hamas's top security chief, Interior Minister Said Siyam, said that a new cease-fire had been reached, and that both sides agreed to pull their forces off the streets. A similar agreement reached a day before quickly unraveled, and more gunfire was heard after Siyam's announcement.

Gunfire shook one beachside neighborhood for more than half an hour after nightfall, as Hamas gunmen fought a local clan allied with Abbas's security forces.

Earlier yesterday, Hamas threatened on its Al Aqsa radio station to attack several high-rise buildings unless residents force Abbas-allied snipers from rooftop positions. A few people left, but most decided to stay put, saying they had nowhere to go.

In yesterday's fighting, 12 people were wounded, hospital officials said. Gunmen attacked the Hamas-run agriculture and interior ministries. Fatah said Hamas kidnapped 40 of its security forces at roadblocks.

Among the 25 killed since Thursday, four were children. Of the more than 230 wounded, 41 were in critical condition, including 15 in intensive care, hospital officials said.

Drivers in Gaza City sought alternative routes around the fighting, afraid to be caught in the crossfire. Gunmen waved along a group of children who walked single file along a wall, hoping that would offer them shelter.

Fighting Thursday had knocked out electricity to much of western Gaza City.