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Hamas gunmen open fire at border protest, killing Gaza teen

Thousands rally for reopening of gateway to Egypt

RAFAH, Gaza Strip - Hamas gunmen opened fire on their own supporters yesterday, killing a teenager at a protest on the Gaza-Egypt border, hospital officials said.

Tens of thousands of flag- waving Hamas supporters gathered at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt to demand it be reopened. The border, Gaza's only gateway to Egypt, has been shut since Hamas's bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip in June.

Hamas gunmen guarding the border fired in the air as hundreds of protesters tried to rush the border terminal and go into Egypt.

A 17-year-old was shot in the head and later pronounced dead, medics said. Seven others were trampled or wounded by gunfire.

"This is a peaceful protest to voice our message that we are looking for freedom," said Issa Mashar, a top Hamas leader in Rafah. "We came to send a message from the people who are suffering."

Ashraf Abu Daya, one of the organizers of the rally, appealed for calm from the crowd.

"There is no need to break into the crossing. The crossing is no longer under the occupation. The crossing is under the control of the Hamas Executive Committee," he said.

Hamas charges that the government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not want the crossing opened by Egypt because that would help the Islamic group hold on to power in Gaza.

The Hamas takeover triggered the closure of the border crossing, which had been run by Palestinian security with European supervision and Israeli security in the background.

Ihab al-Ghusain, a Hamas security spokesman, said its forces tried to prevent a few of the demonstrators from approaching the border with Egypt.

"A child was injured and he is in critical condition. We are investigating the incident to determine where the shot came from," he said.

Also yesterday, Hamas authorities set $243 bail for the release of Fatah activists it arrested after a Gaza protest rally on Friday. That is about a month's salary in the impoverished Gaza Strip, where 60 percent live under the poverty line.

Hamas has been attempting to establish its authority in the Gaza Strip and thwart any forms of dissent since it overthrew Fatah.

Ibrahim Abu Naja, a Fatah official in Gaza, said his group would not pay. "This is a serious precedent," he said. "The decisions adopted are illegal."

In another example of the rising tensions between Hamas and Fatah, the car of a Palestinian affiliated with Hamas was destroyed by a bomb in Gaza City early yesterday. No one was injured.

Abbas called a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee in Ramallah on the West Bank yesterday to discuss rising violence in the Gaza Strip and ways to protect people.

Defying warnings by Hamas, thousands of Palestinians took part in a public prayer meeting called by Fatah on Friday in a public square in Gaza City. Several protesters were injured in clashes with Hamas security forces.

A Fatah spokesman, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, called the protest the beginning of "a new era in the Palestinian national struggle to cleanse the homeland of Hamas gangs," The New York Times reported.

In Amman, Jordan, yesterday, Prime Minister Romano Prodi of Italy said continued Palestinian divisions will hurt chances to move the Middle East peace process forward, particularly with a US-sponsored conference in the offing.

Prodi is on a two-day visit to Jordan to encourage talks between Israel and Palestinians and is scheduled to meet Jordan's King Abdullah today.

"Divisions between Palestinians will not help the peace process," he told reporters in a press conference with his Jordanian counterpart Marouf al-Bakhit after their talks in Amman.

In June, fighters from the Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in five days of fierce fighting resulting in the establishment of rival governments in the two different parts of the Palestinian territories.

Prodi praised the fledging talks between Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel last week, saying they were addressing concrete problems about their future coexistence.

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