Gunfight at West Bank police station raises tensions

Palestinian gunmen opened fire at a West Bank police station in Nablus yesterday as recent tensions between the Palestinian Authority and maverick militant groups erupted into an armed clash.

Palestinian gunmen opened fire at a West Bank police station in Nablus yesterday as recent tensions between the Palestinian Authority and maverick militant groups erupted into an armed clash.

It was the second incident of violence between Palestinian authorities and armed groups this week, underscoring the delicate task Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas faces as he tries to curb militants and restore law and order in the West Bank.

Abbas has been trying to persuade armed men to lay down their weapons while resisting calls from Israel and the international community for a crackdown. Pressure on the Palestinian leader to take tougher action has mounted since a Palestinian suicide bomber from the West Bank killed five Israelis in Tel Aviv last weekend.

Witnesses in Nablus said at least 13 gunmen took up positions outside the police station yesterday afternoon and began shooting, prompting police to return fire. Hospital officials said three people were wounded in the clash, one seriously.

“I heard loud noises and gunfire,” said Mohammed Zohel, a witness to the clash. “I thought the Israelis had gone into the police station, but later I saw it was gunmen fighting the police. It is a real war and very frightening.”

The gunmen belonged to al Awda, a small militant group affiliated with Abbas’ ruling Fatah party. Al Awda members said they opened fire after police tried to arrest an associate who was driving a stolen car. But a police spokesman said the group was upset that one of its members had been beaten while in police custody.

Abbas tried to play down the incident, saying Israel’s continued presence in major Palestinian towns has hindered his ability to take action. Israel agreed at a Mideast summit last month to pull out of five West Bank towns, but the handover was frozen after the suicide bombing last week.

“We hope that Israeli will withdraw soon from these cities so that we can control security in these cities,” Abbas said outside his home in Ramallah. “As long as the Israeli army is in the Palestinian West Bank, there will be breaches and we will deal with it.”

Nablus is not one of the five towns scheduled to be handed over.

:: Lebanese soldiers dismantled two Katyusha rockets that had been prepared for firing at an Israeli outpost on the south Lebanese border yesterday, security officials said.

The rockets were found at Tallousa, 60 miles southeast of Beirut and 2.5 miles north of the Israeli border.

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and radical Palestinian groups are known to have a strong presence in that area. The district is popular with Lebanese and Arab tourists who visit a tomb at Al-Abbad of a Middle Ages hermit.

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