PLO police in gunfight with Islamic militants

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Palestinian police and Islamic militants exchanged fire in the streets of Gaza yesterday, after Yasser Arafat, the PLO Chairman, ordered the arrest of members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israel is demanding the confiscation of illegal weapons and the prosecution of those who organise attacks on Israelis, such as the suicide bombing that killed eight people on Sunday.

"There was an exchange of fire between police and Hamas supporters," one PLO official said. In parts of Gaza, Islamic militants took to the streets, shouting: "Allahu Akbar" - God is Great. Dozens of blindfolded and handcuffed prisoners were taken to the al-Mashtal prison on the sea- front. After about 200 arrests, Hamas said Mr Arafat was "crossing a red line" and that the organisation would retaliate. Israel should "prepare as many coffins as possible," it said.

Shots were fired overnight at the house of General Musa Arafat, head of Palestinian military intelligence, wounding one of his bodyguards.

In the wake of the two suicide bombings south of Gaza City, near the Israeli settlements of Kefar Darom and Netzarim, Mr Arafat ordered "firm measures" against Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, says the implementation of the interim agreement depends on action by Mr Arafat against those responsible for the bombings. One official said: "The Hamas people must feel pursued."

One sign of this was the life sentence imposed yesterday by a Gaza military court on an Islamic Jihad leader, Omar Shallah. The prosecutor-general, Khaled al- Kidra, said: "He was inciting people to suicide operations." On Monday, another alleged Islamic Jihad member was given 15 years in prison, for training guerrillas.

The drive against Islamic militants is more thorough than anything seen in Gaza since the Palestinian authority took over last May, although there are doubts about its effectiveness.

Mr Arafat has 17,500 police and army in Gaza. But it would be difficult to crush Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Polls show they are supported by at least 20 per cent of the population. In Cairo, Mr Arafat said he was in control of the situation and there was no danger of a Palestinian civil war. But he said it would be difficult to disarm civilians, due to the number of weapons.

Freih Abu Medein, head of the Justice Department of the Palestinian authority in Gaza, said police would start confiscating unregistered arms by 11 May. He said: "We are only going to let them keep pistols and personal weapons."

But it is unlikely this will have much impact on Islamic Jihad and Hamas, as suicide bombs require little equipment.