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Fatah leads in Palestinian elections

Vote held as ban on weapons starts being enforced

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian authorities began enforcing a ban on public displays of weapons yesterday, arresting three people and confiscating the guns of off-duty police officers in a key step toward imposing order in the chaotic Gaza Strip.

The crackdown came as dozens of Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank held municipal elections.

President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party came out ahead in Palestinian local elections, but candidates from the militant Hamas group also scored gains, preliminary results showed.

Of the 104 local councils up for grabs in the occupied West Bank, Fatah won control of 61, compared with 28 for Hamas, and 15 for other factions, Jamal al-Shobaki, head of the Higher Commission for Local Elections, told Reuters.

The results were in line with opinion polls that gave Hamas about 30 percent support, pointing to big gains when it takes part in January parliamentary elections.

Thousands voted in the election, seen as a test of Hamas's political clout ahead of the legislative poll. Hamas boycotted the only previous parliamentary ballot in 1996 to protest against peacemaking with Israel.

Yesterday's ballot, the third phase of local elections for more than 1,000 council seats in the West Bank, was also the first Palestinian vote since Israel completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip on Sept. 12.

Shobaki put turnout at 81 percent. Final official results are scheduled to be announced in a few days.

Pressing forward with its military campaign, Israeli soldiers killed five Palestinian gunmen in raids yesterday and today in the West Bank.

Israel launched the wave of airstrikes and arrest raids last weekend in response to Gaza militants' rocket attacks on southern Israeli towns.

The offensive raised pressure on Abbas to act against militant groups and armed gangs, which operate openly in Gaza. Israel says there can be no peace talks until the groups are disarmed.

In a move to bring order to Gaza, Palestinian officials yesterday announced a ban on public displays of weapons, and Hamas said it would honor it.

The Palestinian police chief, Ala Husni, said in the wake of Israel's recent pullout from Gaza there is no longer a reason for anyone other than security officers to carry weapons.

''The role of resistance weapons has ended in the streets. They should go back into storage and they should not show up in the streets," he told a news conference. ''Any weapon now in the street is a criminal weapon." He said there were no plans to seize stored weapons.

Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa said authorities arrested three men carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles and confiscated their weapons.

Several security officers also were arrested for carrying guns while off duty, he said.

Abbas said the weapons ban was a first step to imposing law and order on Gaza.

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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