Death toll climbs to nine in bloody Hamas-Fatah fight

The death toll rose to nine in bloody clashes between Fatah and Hamas supporters by early Sunday, as an estimated 180 or more Fatah supporters fled Gaza across Israel to the West Bank, dpa reported.

The gunbattles in eastern Gaza City's al-Sheja'eya neighbourhood erupted early Saturday after Hamas security forces attempted to arrest members of the Fatah-allied Helles clan. An estimated 80 people were injured, Palestinian medical sources said. A curfew has been in place in al-Sheja'eya since Saturday.

The current Fatah-Hamas tensions are the worst since Hamas' Gaza takeover a year ago. Many of the dead were Hamas supporters.

The Minister of Interior in the deposed Hamas-led government in Gaza, Said Siam, told a news conference that the Helles clan members violated the law and his police detained several suspects.

Palestinian witnesses and Israeli media reported that at least 180 members of the Helles clan fled their homes and went to the border between eastern Gaza City and Israel after Hamas security forces took control of Sheja'eya, where the Helles clan live.

Palestinian sources said that senior Fatah leader Ahmed Helles, better known as Abu Maher, and dozens of his clan's members were among those who escaped.

Their flight took them to the West Bank, which is under Fatah control, and was aided by the Israeli army, according to Israeli media.

A spokesman for Israel's Defence Ministry told Deutsche Presse-Agentur on Sunday that the Fatah supporters who had fled would be allowed to return to the Gaza Strip. The decision by Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak followed a request by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he said.

As of early Sunday, 38 Fatah supporters had already returned, the spokesman said. Twenty-two of the injured would remain.

In Ramallah, Abbas' Fatah movement threatened to take action against Hamas supporters in the West Bank if the latter does not stop its military campaign against Fatah members in the Gaza Strip.

Fatah spokesman in the West Bank Fahmi Za'arir demanded that Hamas end its military campaign against Fatah in Gaza and release all the prisoners, and that the Hamas leadership in the West Bank openly declare its opposition to Hamas actions in Gaza.

Fatah gunmen earlier detained a Hamas leader in the West Bank city of Nablus, Muhammad Ghazal, for two hours, threatening to kill him if Hamas didn't release Fatah leaders in Gaza. However, Ghazal, who was earlier held by Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces for two days, was released unharmed at the intervention of the PA.

Saturday's clashes appeared to have been triggered when Hamas security forces and the Hamas armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, stormed Sheja'eya to search for suspects involved in a July 25 bomb attack on a Hamas car in Gaza that killed six people.

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