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Rooftop positions abandoned as Fatah, Hamas declare truce

Israel continues airstrikes on militant targets

A Palestinian youth looked at the rubble of a destroyed metal workshop allegedly used by the Islamic group Hamas after it was hit by an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City yesterday. (HATEM MOUSSA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

GAZA CITY -- Gunmen armed with rifles, grenades, and explosives climbed down from rooftop positions yesterday and residents began venturing out of bullet-scarred homes after their leaders agreed to end a week of Palestinian factional bloodshed in Gaza.

The truce began to take hold as Israel launched a fifth day of airstrikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip in reprisal for the Islamic militant group's rocket attacks on Israeli border towns.

Other recent cease-fires between the factions have been short-lived, but Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said he expected this one to stick because of Israel's military action. "No one would accept to fight one another while the Israelis are shelling Gaza," he said.

A prisoner handover -- a major element of the cease-fire deal -- was delayed for hours while kidnapped men were located. Shortly after midnight yesterday, two buses carrying kidnapped men from both sides pulled up to the Egyptian representative office in Gaza City, where the cease-fire was negotiated.

Colonel Burhan Hamad, head of an Egyptian security team that helped to mediate the cease-fire, said 30 hostages were to be released early today, and the remaining 18 later in the day.

The truce accord was endorsed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas's exiled supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, who conferred a rare three times by phone in the past few days. Mashaal lives in Syria.

The clashes between Hamas and Fatah gunmen loyal to Abbas have brought the two groups that nominally share power to the brink of civil war. More than 50 Palestinians have been killed in a week of infighting.

The overlapping violence from Israel's attacks on Hamas rocket operations has killed 23 other Palestinians in the past week.

Yesterday, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz vowed to keep going after Hamas militants who fire rockets at Israel. Rocket squads should be "very afraid," because "it is our intention to act against Hamas," he said in an interview with Israel Radio.

Still, Peretz said time was not ripe for a major Israeli ground offensive in Gaza.

An Israeli airstrike killed three people in a car in Gaza early today, Palestinian medics said. Israel said the car was carrying three Hamas radicals and a load of weapons.

Yesterday, four Palestinians were killed in airstrikes on Hamas targets, while five rockets from Gaza hit the Israeli border area, causing damage, but no injuries.

The air attacks, backed by tank fire, have driven Hamas fighters out of their bases, prompting the militant group to accuse Israel and Fatah of colluding against it.

The Palestinian infighting broke out last Sunday after Abbas stationed thousands of security forces on the streets of lawless Gaza City -- a move Hamas interpreted as a provocation because it wasn't consulted.

The new truce committed the battling factions to pull their fighters off the streets and exchange an unknown number of hostages.

Four previous cease-fire agreements collapsed.

A gun battle erupted outside the home of a senior Fatah official in Gaza City as the cease-fire was reached, and security officials said several people were wounded.

Still, as word of the cease-fire spread, and enforcement teams went out on the streets, fighters began to comply -- something they had not done with the previous truces.

They also began knocking down roadblocks they had set up to identify rival fighters.

Truce enforcers from various Palestinian factions went from rooftop to rooftop, urging gunmen to leave. At one Gaza City building that had been the site of fierce fighting, Hamas fighters climbed down carrying a cache of rocket-propelled grenades, bags of explosives, and AK-47 rifles.

Mervat, a resident who would only give her first name for fear of reprisal, said the fighting terrorized her 5-year old daughter who thought the conflict was with Israelis. The two never left home throughout the fighting.

"Hopefully it will stick this time. We are the only losers if this continues," she said.

She and other residents who had remained holed up at home throughout the fighting stepped out hesitantly to shop for groceries and other supplies.