oPt

Palestinian interior minister quits amid violence

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By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA, May 14 (Reuters) - The Palestinian interior minister resigned on Monday, rocking a two-month-old unity government, after the biggest surge in factional fighting in months revived fears of civil war.

Despite an Egyptian-brokered truce, two Palestinian gunmen and two civilians caught in crossfire were killed in Gaza in clashes between the Hamas and Fatah groups. Nine people have been shot dead since a new round of violence erupted on Friday.

"I told all parties I cannot accept being a minister without authority," Interior Minister Hani al-Qawasmi said at a news conference after Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, accepted his resignation.

Palestinian Information Minister Mustafa al-Barghouthi said the cabinet decided to deploy security forces in Gaza to try to end the chaos.

He said the forces would answer to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, who would temporarily take charge of Qawasmi's ministry. "We urge all factions to withdraw gunmen from (Gaza) streets," Barghouthi said.

As Hamas's choice as interior minister, Qawasmi was to have overseen security services, but officials said the former academic was frustrated by competition from powerful Fatah rivals for control of the armed contingents.

Qawasmi's move cast new doubt on whether power-sharing between Islamist Hamas and secular Fatah could continue. Filling the interior ministry post had been one of the main obstacles to forming the current coalition government.

TENSE STREETS

Earlier, sources in President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah said tensions stoked by the renewed violence with Hamas, after the ceasefire was announced late on Sunday, could lead to the collapse of the unity government within days.

"Talk during the night is like butter -- it melts at sunrise," a man on a bicycle, referring to the truce negotiations, shouted as he passed near masked gunmen closing a main street in Gaza City.

Under the ceasefire agreement, both sides were to have pulled gunmen off the streets, a day before Palestinians mark the "Naqba", or what they describe as the tragedy that befell them when Israel was created in 1948.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, testifying to a parliamentary committee, reaffirmed Israel's position that with what she called a "terrorist group", Hamas, in power, the time was not ripe for full negotiations on Palestinian statehood.

In a scene reminiscent of fierce factional warfare before the Saudi-brokered unity government was formed, masked gunmen patrolled Gaza's streets as ordinary Palestinians opted to stay indoors and keep children home from school.

Shops were shuttered and taxi drivers took detours to bypass checkpoints set up by rival armed groups.

Palestinians had hoped the recent deployment of Palestinian police in Gaza under a new security plan would curb growing lawlessness and ease factional tensions.

Previous police deployments in Gaza have not fully secured the territory, which has sunk further into poverty and political disarray since Israel withdrew troops and settlers in 2005.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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