Tensions spill over as police clash with Hamas militia

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The stand-off between rival Palestinian forces continued yesterday after Hamas rejected a public call by President Mahmoud Abbas to disband its new militia in Gaza.

Relations between the factions remained tense - though without descending into open combat - after Fatah gunmen forced a Hamas minister to cut short a meeting in the northern West Bank city of Tulkarem.

Saeb Erekat, the senior Palestinian negotiator and an ally of Mr Abbas, said the situation in Gaza was "very worrying". He said that Mr Abbas had ordered the deployment of regular Palestinian security forces, and had called for the removal of the other Hamas-linked forces from the streets. "I hope they will leave." said Mr Erekat. "If they don't leave, we are heading toward a serious crisis."

But the Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, insisted that the new Hamas "back-up" force ordered on to the streets by the interior minister, Said Syam, had been formed "in accordance with the law" and claimed it had been approved by Mr Abbas. Both Mr Haniyeh and Mr Syam are leading figures in Hamas in Gaza.

Mr Haniyeh added: "This force will be according to the law and integrated into the security services. The force is not directed against anyone. As they were in the forefront of resistance, they are now protecting the land and security."

The deployment of the new paramilitary force, under the command of Jamal Abu Sam-hadana, a militant wanted by Israel, has triggered a new power struggle between Mr Abbas and the Hamas-led cabinet over who has ultimate control over the security forces. Egyptian officials yesterday began mediating between the two sides.

Militants in the new Hamas force refrained from reacting violently when police, deployed on the orders of Mr Abbas, marched near their patrols, clapping, whistling and chanting slogans such as, "We are the authority. We salute Abu Mazen [Mr Abbas]" and "Jerusalem, the president, the homeland." The police were unarmed but were followed by officers in jeeps carrying weapons.

A short time earlier, dozens of Fatah gunmen firing into the air forced the Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister, Nasser Shaer, a Hamas member, to leave a meeting in Tulkarem with the local governor. Although Mr Shaer appeared not to be in personal danger, a local leader of the Fatah-linked al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade said Hamas officials were not welcome in the city and that Mr Shaer had been removed "by force". After leaving the building under police escort, Mr Shaer continued his talks in the municipality offices.

Meanwhile, officials close to the Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said media expectations of a high-profile public deal next week with President George Bush over his plans for unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank were unlikely to be fulfilled. Both sides are expected to maintain the stance that some form of negotiations with Mr Abbas will be tried before the "convergence" plan is unveiled. But one source close to preparations for Mr Olmert's Washington summit said that those would quickly fail if, as he expected, Mr Abbas was unable to report that Hamas had agreed to recognise Israel and renounce violence.

The Israeli foreign ministry yesterday summoned the Chinese ambassador, Chen Young Long, to protest against Beijing's decision to invite the Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, the Palestinian Foreign Minister, for talks.

Mark Regev, the foreign ministry spokesman, said: "We also protested the fact that Chinese diplomats continue to meet with Hamas officials in Gaza. We stated... that these acts are giving legitimacy to a terrorist government... and they hurt the bilateral relationship between Israel and China."