Vandals loot American school in Gaza

( AP ) - Gunmen smashed windows, burned buses and looted computers belonging to a private American school in Gaza Saturday, an attack officials believed was linked to President Bush's visit to the West Bank earlier this week.

A previously unknown group claiming affiliation with al-Qaida left leaflets around the school that were signed "Army of Believers, the al-Qaida Branch on the Land of Palestine."

The group didn't specifically claim responsibility for the attack, but vowed to target "dens of vice and corruption," naming a number of restaurants in Gaza City.

There is no evidence that al-Qaida has been operating in Gaza, but many Islamic extremists in the area have adopted the group's language and style recently. Hamas - which won control of Gaza after defeating Abbas' Fatah movement in June - denies charges by Israel and Abbas that al-Qaida operates quietly from the coastal territory.

In other Gaza violence Saturday, a man carrying nine pounds of TNT tried to attack a Hamas rally attended by the group's leader Ismail Haniyeh. Israeli aircraft fired at a Hamas training camp in southern Gaza, killing two Hamas militants.

The attack on the American International School was the second in 48 hours. On Thursday, just before Bush arrived in the West Bank, gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the school.

In a claim made to local media on Thursday, a separate unknown group, The Holy Jihad Brigades, said it was behind the attack that day.

On Saturday, gunmen locked the school's unarmed guard in a room, burned six school buses, and smashed windows and computers, said Principal Ribhi Salim. Other computers were stolen. No one claimed credit for the attack, which left one side of the building scarred with black smoke.

"This is terrorism against education," Salim said, while inspecting damage. He said that Islamic fundamentalists consider the school's co-ed system and modern uniforms offensive.

The school has been repeatedly targeted by vandals in the past for its perceived U.S. link. Many Palestinians resent the U.S. government for what they consider a pro-Israel bias. The private school in northern Gaza holds classes in English and uses a U.S.-style curriculum but has no ties to the U.S. government.

Salim said the school would not close.

Ihab Ghussein, a spokesman for the Hamas-led Interior Ministry in the Gaza Strip, condemned the incident and said he believed the attacks were related to Bush's recent visit.

"Regardless of the reasons - whether to protest, or because of the visit of the American president, this is not a way to express oneself. This is a criminal act," Ghussein said.

The Bush visit - part of a broader tour of the Middle East - was aimed largely at pushing forward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has established a government in the West Bank that the U.S. hopes can work out a deal with the Israelis.

The U.S. and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist group. Bush visited Israel but limited his travels in Palestinian territory to the West Bank, steering clear of Gaza.

Tensions between Hamas and Fatah appeared to be on the rise again in Gaza on Saturday. In separate incidents, a man tried to bomb a Hamas rally, a roadside bomb injured three Hamas policemen and a Hamas policeman was found riddled with bullets.

"There are indications that attempts are under way to renew chaos and lawlessness in Gaza," Ghussein said.

It was not immediately clear if Haniyeh, who was present at the Hamas rally, was the target of the attempted bombing or if the suspect had ties to Fatah. Hamas forces arrested the man after nine pounds of TNT were found in his backpack, Ghussein said.

In the Israeli airstrike Saturday, the army spokesman said the Hamas point was targeted in retaliation for continued rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. A total of 215 rockets and mortar shells have been fired on southern Israel since the beginning of the month, the army spokesman said.

The Israeli army frequently conducts airstrikes and land operations in the Gaza Strip in an effort to stop the firing of the projectiles toward Israel from the coastal area that Hamas seized control of in June. The rockets have severely disrupted life in southern Israel and sometimes cause casualties.

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