Fatah and Hamas agree ceasefire

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Gun battles continued last night at the end of one of the worst days of fratricidal violence in the Gaza Strip, despite news that the main Palestinian parties had agreed a ceasefire.

Walid Awad, a spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party, said Fatah and Hamas had agreed to withdraw all armed men from the streets of Gaza and the West Bank. They also agreed to release all the people they had kidnapped from each other. Under the deal, negotiations for a national unity coalition would resume and all demonstrations have been prohibited for the foreseeable future.

Tawfik Abu Khoussa, another spokesman for the party, said: "Fatah is trying to control its forces. We have serious intentions of stopping the fighting. It is now up to the other side to also stop firing."

But it was unclear whether the deal would take hold as intense gun battles continued outside the house of Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan's house in Gaza. The violence is threatening to overshadow Tony Blair's attempts to revive the peace process as his plane touched down in Tel Aviv last night, on the final leg of a tour of four Middle Eastern states.

Earlier in the day, pro-Fatah gunmen fired automatic weapons at a convoy ferrying Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas Foreign Minister, to his office in Gaza City. Mr Zahar escaped unharmed from what Hamas condemned as an attempted assassination. Pro-Hamas militiamen retaliated with shots at the home of Mr Abbas, the Fatah President, and two mortars were fired at his office, wounding five guards.

Hamas fighters killed a member of Force 17, the elite presidential guard loyal to Fatah, in a raid on a training base. A 19-year-old Gaza woman was shot dead in the crossfire during a gun battle between rival militias.

Abeer Hamad, a 26-year-old resident of the Qalandia refugee camp between Jerusalem and Ramallah, protested: "As if it's not enough that the Israelis slaughter us, we are slaughtering ourselves."

The tension in the region has been exacerbated by the absence of a single centre of power or of a security service whose loyalty is to the nation rather than faction. Fatah and Hamas are struggling for power. Each has its own militia. All of them are armed. Hamas dominates Gaza; Fatah is stronger on the West Bank.

Mr Abbas was not in Gaza, but in Ramallah where he met the elections' commission to set the ball rolling for early presidential and parliamentary voting to extricate the Palestinian people from their economic plight and diplomatic isolation.

He called for elections in a speech on Saturday denouncing the Hamas government for squandering the opportunities created by Israel's 2005 Gaza disengagement. "The lands of the settlements should have been used for economic, tourism and agricultural projects," he contended, "but there are some who insist on firing rockets and kidnapped an Israeli soldier. Since then we have paid with 500 martyrs, 4,000 wounded and thousands of destroyed homes."

Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas Prime Minister, rejected Mr Abbas's call and threatened to boycott any elections. He accused the President of trying to topple the government and dismissed his speech as "inflammatory" and "insulting to Palestinians everywhere."

Rafik Husseini, the President's chief of staff, said: "We are in an impasse. The people have to decide."

A poll by Khalil Shikaki's Centre for Policy and Survey Research pointed to a tight contest if elections were held now. Hamas continues to reject international demands to recognise Israel, renounce violence and honour previous agreements.