GAZA, Nov 12 (Reuters) Gunfire killed at least six people today at a Fatah memorial rally for Yasser Arafat that drew hundreds of thousands of supporters of the defeated faction in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, a medic and witnesses said.
A sea of yellow Fatah flags 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 the rare Fatah rally broke up in chaos after gunfire rang out and grew into what Hamas described as battles with the rival group's fighters, forcing even members of the crowd who had initially stood their ground to bolt for cover.
A medic at a hospital said at least five people were killed, the highest death toll in violence involving the two factions since battles five months ago. Other medical officials said at least 50 people, including women and youngsters, were wounded.
Fatah officials accused Hamas forces of opening fire from the nearby Islamic University. Hamas said its men had come under attack from Fatah gunmen and shot back.
In an earlier incident close to the scene of the rally, Fatah activists and witnesses said a Hamas security man fired at a vehicle carrying participants, killing one passenger. Hamas said he might have been killed by fire from Fatah.
The emotional memorial event for Arafat had given Fatah a rare chance to assemble its supporters in the Gaza Strip.
Abbas, who is preparing for a US-hosted conference with Israel later this month on Palestinian statehood, has rejected any renewed dialogue with Hamas until the group relinquishes control of the Gaza Strip.
BAN Hamas has banned opposition rallies since its takeover of the territory but any move to prevent a remembrance ceremony for Arafat, the iconic leader who died on November 11, 2004, would have been widely unpopular among Palestinians.
''The people came out today into the streets to say 'no' to Hamas,'' said senior Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan, a former security chief in the Gaza Strip and now rebased in the occupied West Bank, where his faction holds sway.
''I call on Fatah in Gaza to continue pursuing peaceful means in confronting Hamas. I know many people in Gaza don't like this because emotions are running high but popular means are the only way to bring the downfall of this fascist movement,'' he said.
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,'' said a teenage participant, who gave his name only as Khaled.
REUTERS PJ HT2055