Four children among the 17 dead as Gaza fire fights rage

Click to follow

Buildings in Gaza's two main universities were set on fire yesterday in a major escalation of infighting which health officials said killed at least 17 Palestinians - including four children - and left more than 200 wounded. Armed men mounted flying checkpoints in otherwise deserted streets amid heavy gunfire which continued across Gaza City and the northern Strip despite an "agreement in principle" to try and implement yet another ceasefire.

Civilian residents remained at home instead of attending Friday prayers to avoid being caught in the crossfire of a series of running battles fought by Hamas and Fatah militiamen in streets and on rooftops with rocket propelled grenades, mortars and semi-automatic rifles. Hospital officials appealed for blood donors as the fighting brought the death toll to 24 since Thursday.

An earlier three-day old ceasefire collapsed on Thursday after gunmen in Hamas's paramilitary executive force attacked a convoy of trucks as it passed by the el Bureij refugee camp, killing five members of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Force 17 security personnel and two other members of Fatah-linked security organisations.

Israel and Fatah have denied that the trucks, which had reportedly passed through the Israeli controlled Kerem Shalom crossing and were apparently destined for use by the Presidential Guard, contained weapons, and no evidence had been produced by last night that they did. Security officials said they had contained tents, medical equipment and toilets.

The US, which Hamas has accused of trying to foment a Fatah "coup" is pledged to supply training and non-lethal equipment to the presidential guard at a cost of up to $86m (£44m). Officials close to Mr Abbas say the efforts to bolster his forces are to "deter" Hamas, which is widely reported to have imported large amounts of weaponry into Gaza in recent months.

Fatah gunmen yesterday stormed the Islamic University, which has loose links to Hamas and set fire to campus buildings sending dense smoke billowing across Gaza City. Hamas accused Fatah of trying to destroy the university and by last night Fatah had produced no evidence for earlier claims - from unnamed sources in the faction - that they had captured a group of Iranians in the university.

A few hours later bombs were detonated and fires ignited in the nearby campus of al-Quds University, which is linked to Fatah. Hamas denied any involvement in the attack. One resident, Ashraf Reziq, 22, who lives a block from the Islamic University, said nobody felt safe. "Gaza has turned into a city of ghosts. No one is in the streets ... If we have one thing at all, it is fear."

During yesterday's fighting, Hamas fighters attacked a base used by Mr Abbas's presidential guard, claiming they had seized weapons before setting it on fire. They also commandeered a police station and the headquarters of the Fatah-dominated Preventative Security Service. They also attacked a Fatah-linked radio station in Jabalya, northern Gaza with explosives.

Local Hamas and Fatah leaders said they had agreed in principle to a ceasefire but were now seeking to agree "mechanisms" required to start pulling militiamen off the streets, though it was not immediately clear how much authority they have to deliver a truce.

Beyond that, hopes of full a ceasefire rest with a Saudi-brokered meeting between Mr Abbas and the Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal scheduled to take place in Mecca on Tuesday in what is billed as a fresh attempt to agree a "national unity" government that could lift the international blockade of the Palestinian Authority. In Ramallah Mr Abbas said: "I call upon everyone, regardless of their affiliation, to stop this bloodletting."

Yesterday's violence continued as Condoleeza Rice, the US Secretary of State, led the international "Quartet" in a meeting which one US official reportedly depicted in advance as an attempt to device a peace process which would get "beyond Hamas" - who they indicated they no longer believed would meet the conditions set by the international community to lift the boycott on the authority.

Sami Abdel Shafi, an analyst and business consultant in Gaza said: "There have been several ceasefires and each time they are breached, the breach is a little worse than the last time." He added that the apparent lack of urgency in arranging top-level talks "disrespects an entire population and mocks the just cause of Palestine .... No matter what the outcome of this slow-simmering civil war, leaders of both Hamas and Fatah are increasingly seen by many as owing Palestinians a straight answer on a feasible and peaceful way forward."