Two guards die as Palestinian leader is caught in gun battle

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The Independent Online

Dissident Palestinian gunmen exchanged fire in Gaza yesterday with security guards protecting Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, the transitional leader, when he visited a mourning site for Yasser Arafat. Two guards were killed and 10 others wounded.

Dissident Palestinian gunmen exchanged fire in Gaza yesterday with security guards protecting Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, the transitional leader, when he visited a mourning site for Yasser Arafat. Two guards were killed and 10 others wounded.

The shooting occurred shortly after the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, announced plans to meet moderate Palestinian leaders later this month in an early indication of America's readiness to become involved in a Middle East peace process.

Witnesses said that the Gaza confrontations began at 3pm when fighters of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades armed with rockets and automatic rifles marched on the site. Al-Aqsa is the militia of Mr Arafat's Fatah movement. Their commander, Abu Mohammed, made a speech insisting that no one had a right to make concessions to Israel on the rights of refugees or Jerusalem.

Three hours later, about 100 armed men demanded to be allowed into the compound as Abu Mazen was arriving. They accused Abu Mazen and the local security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, of being American-Israeli stooges.

The presidential guard said that Ahmed Hilles, a local Fatah leader, could go in with five men, but not all 100. He refused, and shooting broke out from all directions. It continued for about 20 minutes. Abu Mazen was unable to reach his car. The guards extricated him by Jeep through a dirt track.

The clash, the most serious since Mr Arafat's funeral on Friday, came on a day when the transitional leadership announced that Palestinian voters would go to the polls on 9 January to choose his successor as president. It underlined the difficulties Abu Mazen faces in asserting his authority and establishing the tranquillity necessary for free elections.

Nominations will be open from Saturday. The Fatah revolutionary council will meet in the next two or three days to select its candidate. Abu Mazen, 69, a taciturn former prime minister, is the front-runner.

Officials cautioned, however, against taking his nomination for granted. He is a veteran of Palestinian revolutionary politics who returned with Mr Arafat from exile a decade ago, but his appeal to the Palestinian street is limited. Abu Mazen has frequently criticised the "militarisation" of the intifada as a disastrous mistake.

An alternative, canvassed by the restless younger generation, is Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah MP and militia leader currently serving five life sentences in Israel's Beersheba prison after being convicted of murdering four Israelis and a Greek monk. Mr Barghouti would be a popular choice, but senior Palestinian officials said he was unlikely to run on his own if Fatah failed to endorse him. Fatah, they explained, could not afford to field more than one candidate for fear of splitting the vote and letting in a rival party.

In any case, Israel insistedit would not release Mr Barghouti. "The man was sentenced to five life terms for the murder of Israelis," an official said. "This is not a political issue, but a purely legal one."

Avraham Poraz, the Interior Minister, hinted, however, that he might be set free in exchange for Azzam Azzam, a member of Israel's Druse minority convicted of spying in Egypt. But Jawad Bulous, Mr Barghouti's lawyer, said he knew of no such initiative.

Ghassan Hatib, the Palestinian Minister of Labour, told The Independent that they were setting three conditions for holding the election.

First, the Israeli army had to withdraw from the areas of the West Bank and Gaza that were under Palestinian rule before the intifada broke out in September 2000. Most of the voters live in those areas. "There cannot be free and democratic elections if the IDF is in control," he contended.

Second, there must be freedom of political organisation and expression. Candidates from radical groups must not live in fear of Israeli arrest or assassination.

Third, the 228,000 Arabs of East Jerusalem must be allowed to register and vote, as they were in the only previous Palestinian election in 1996. Mr Hatib said that registration for a ballot planned before Mr Arafat's death was almost complete outside Jerusalem, where the Israeli police closed registration offices.

General Powell said that he planned to attend a conference in Egypt on 22-23 November where he expected to meet both Abu Mazen and the current Palestinian prime minister, Ahmad Quriea. If he did not meet there, he might travel to the Palestinian territories. "I hope to be able to see them to discuss what their plans are and how to move forward," he said.

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