Gunfire ends massive Fatah rally in Gaza

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GAZA, Nov 12 (Reuters) Hundreds of thousands of Fatah supporters fled in panic today after gunfire erupted at a memorial event for Yasser Arafat that had given the defeated faction in Hamas-controlled Gaza a rare chance to hold a rally.

Medical officials said at least 15 people were wounded.

Fatah officials accused Hamas forces of opening fire from the nearby Islamic University. Hamas said its men had come under fire from Fatah gunmen and shot back.

A sea of yellow Fatah flags and waves of emotion had filled a Gaza square for the biggest assembly Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's secular faction has held in the territory since Hamas Islamists routed its fighters in violence last June.

But as gunfire rang out and grew into what Hamas described as battles with Fatah fighters, even members of the crowd who had initially stood their ground bolted for cover.

In an earlier incident near the scene of the rally, Fatah activists said a Hamas security man fired at a vehicle carrying people to the assembly, killing one passenger. Medical workers said a body with gunshot wounds arrived at Gaza's morgue.

Hamas said he might have been killed by Fatah fire.

''Today we all rise up and one day the Hamas aggressors will be gone,'' said a teenager at the event who would give his name only as Khaled.

Hamas has banned opposition rallies since its Gaza takeover but any move to prevent a remembrance ceremony for Arafat, the iconic leader who died on Nov 11, 2004, would have been widely unpopular among Palestinians.

ARAFAT TRIBUTE Huge murals of Arafat in his trademark Arab headdress, and a smaller picture of Abbas, had provided a backdrop for the event which organisers said was attended by more than 250,000 people.

Fatah nationalist songs blared from loudspeakers as many in the crowd voiced their longing for Arafat, regarded by Palestinians as a symbol of unity.

''Abu Mazen (Abbas) is not like Arafat but he is our president now and we respect him. We urge him to end Hamas occupation,'' Khaled said.

Hamas erected at least 10 checkpoints on Gaza's main north-south road to inspect vehicles heading to the event, local residents said. Fatah officials said some buses were turned back and passengers then set out on foot, but Hamas denied this.

WAFA news agency, run by Abbas's office, accused Hamas of stealing dozens of pictures of Arafat and 30,000 headdresses symbolising the late leader, that came through an Israeli-run border crossing point earlier in the day.

A pro-Hamas Internet site quoted a Hamas security official as saying trucks carrying yellow Fatah flags and hats were seized ''at a time when the Gaza Strip is being deprived of basic goods and medicine''.

Israel has tightened border restrictions with Gaza since Hamas, which opposes Abbas's peace moves with the Jewish state, came to power in the territory but has pledged humanitarian aid can go through.

REUTERS PD HS1800

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