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Hamas hits Qaeda allies in Gaza, over 20 dead
Sat Aug 15, 2009 11:30am EDT
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By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Palestinian Islamists Hamas struck back at an al-Qaeda challenge to their grip on the Gaza Strip by storming a mosque in overnight battles that left the leader of the "Warriors of God" splinter group among up to 28 dead.
After fighting ended early on Saturday the town of Rafah was sealed off to media, but Hamas said the physician and preacher who led the group and who had declared an al Qaeda-style Islamic "emirate" from a local mosque on Friday was dead -- blown up by his own hand along with a Syrian ally after killing a mediator.
The worst inter-Palestinian violence since Hamas seized Gaza from its secular, Western-backed rivals two years ago exposed bitter tensions in the blockaded coastal strip, where Hamas has imposed its own nationalist brand of Islam while also trying to reach out to the West to end its international isolation.
Some of the dead were former Hamas men who, people who knew them said, wanted a tougher line on imposing Islamic rule.
The group "wanted a return to anarchy," said Ehab al-Ghsain, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry of the Hamas government which has run Gaza since routing forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007.
"We have said there is no chance of a return to anarchy."
As Hamas police hunted more followers of Abdel-Latif Moussa and his Jund Ansar Allah (Warriors of God) following what locals in the Egyptian border town called a "night of horror," a Web site linked to al Qaeda denounced Hamas as a "criminal gang" imitating Israeli tactics and bent on thwarting Islamic rule.
After Abbas chaired a meeting in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, his secular PLO said the violence showed its Islamist rivals were turning Gaza into a base for anti-Western radicals.
"Hamas is repeating the Somali and Afghan experiences in Gaza and letting places of worship be turned into clannish centers that promote extremism," the PLO said in a statement.
Analysts said Hamas's action was meant to stifle such talk.
Hani Habib, a Palestinian analyst, said Hamas wanted to show Gazans it was in sole charge. But he added: "Its main aim was to send a message to the West that it can suppress and abort any possible advance for the more radical groups. Hamas wanted to say that it is an Islamist faction, but a moderate one."
Hamas officials said 22 people were killed, including three children and three other civilians as well as six policemen. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights put the death toll at 28, with about 100 wounded, but it gave no breakdown of the figures.
Residents said the Ibn Taymea mosque where Moussa preached on Friday to a hundred or so supporters, some armed and dressed like Taliban, was hit by grenades and Moussa's house destroyed.
While unwilling to endorse the teachings of the middle-aged pediatrician who gave himself the al Qaeda-style nom de guerre Abu al-Nour al-Maqdessi, several Rafah residents also voiced disquiet at the Hamas response and said they fear reprisals. Continued...
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