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Palestinian Gunmen Rampage in Ramallah

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page A22

JERUSALEM, March 31 -- Palestinian gunmen went on a rampage in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, shooting at the office of the Palestinian Authority's president and setting several restaurants and shops on fire, security officials said.

The identities of the gunmen were unclear, but several reports indicated they were Palestinian security officers and militants affiliated with the Fatah political movement -- the party of the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas -- who had been expelled from his headquarters.

Palestinians gather in Ramallah, where militants fired on presidential offices. (Nasser Nasser -- AP)

Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, was in his office at the time. No injuries were reported.

A spokesman for the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Fatah, denied the men were members of the group, saying they were common thugs. Some government officials described the fracas as a street brawl among criminals.

In another example of the chaotic security situation in the West Bank, a group of angry Palestinians set fire to a Palestinian police checkpoint in the city of Tulkarm early Thursday after officers manning the post opened fire on a suspected stolen car, wounding at least one of its occupants.

The incidents underscored the challenges Abbas is facing as he tries to assert control over the numerous Palestinian security agencies. His efforts are being closely scrutinized, and often criticized, by Israeli officials, who have pledged to return police responsibilities in the West Bank to the Palestinians but only if they prove they can handle the job to the Israelis' satisfaction.

Some Fatah activists said the clash in Ramallah erupted shortly before midnight when Palestinian security officials ordered about six militants and officials to turn in their weapons or leave the presidential compound, known as the muqata. The men, along with other militants wanted by Israel, had been given shelter there for several years by the former Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, who died in November.

Abbas, who was elected in January, also granted refuge to the men, but he has come under increasing pressure in recent weeks to make good on a pledge to begin disarming wanted militants.

"There is a real crisis going on regarding the fugitives," said Fatah Ziad Abu Ein, an activist in Fatah's reformist wing. "The president ordered the fugitives who stayed in the muqata to leave. The problem is the behavior" that followed. "That is not acceptable."

The men left and went on a shooting spree that continued into Thursday morning, security officials said. Witnesses said the men also set several businesses afire.

Special correspondents Sufian Taha in the West Bank and Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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