By Nidal al-Mughrabi
Saturday, December 16, 2006; 11:26 PM
GAZA (Reuters) - Masked gunmen killed an officer of an elite force loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday in a dawn raid on a Gaza training camp, a day after Abbas called for new elections amid growing tensions with Hamas.
Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for Hamas's armed wing, denied the group had been involved in the attack, the first of its kind against the U.S.-backed 3,500-strong force, telling Reuters: "This is a wrong and irresponsible accusation."
Hamas had accused Abbas of launching a coup after he announced a plan for early presidential and parliamentary elections in an attempt to break a political deadlock and have crippling international sanctions lifted.
Dozens of masked gunmen in uniforms similar to those worn by Hamas militants shot and wounded a guard at the entrance to the camp in Gaza City and then fired and killed him at close range, a senior officer from the presidential guard told Reuters.
The gunmen then stormed the camp and set fire to dozens of tents and traded gunfire with several presidential guards stationed inside, wounding at least five of them, the officer and a Palestinian security source said.
The infiltrators also threw mortar bombs and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an electrical transformer, plunging the camp into darkness. Dozens of members of Abbas's force soon rushed inside the camp and the gunmen fled, he said.
Following months of factional violence that has raised fears of civil war Abbas, of Fatah, said parliamentary and presidential elections should be held as soon as possible but added efforts to form a unity government should continue.
"I have decided to call for presidential and parliamentary elections ... The crisis is getting worse," Abbas said in a speech, which was broadcast live.
On Thursday, unidentified gunmen attacked a convoy carrying Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, killing one of his bodyguards. Hamas called it an assassination attempt by the presidential guard. Fatah had said the accusation was unfounded.
WEST SUPPORTS ABBAS
Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, took office in March after beating the long-dominant Fatah in parliamentary elections, leading the United States and the European Union to cut financial aid to the Palestinian government.
Talks between Hamas and Fatah on forming a unity government have broken down repeatedly in recent months, mainly due to Hamas's refusal to change its stance toward Israel.
Washington welcomed Saturday's speech by Abbas. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is expected to meet Abbas in the coming days on his Middle East trip, said the international community should support the moderate president.
Hamas said the president had no authority to call early elections. The movement's leaders said they would never allow early elections to be held but did not say how.
"It was a speech of defeat and submission to the Zionist enemy," senior Hamas lawmaker Mushir al-Masri told a crowd of Hamas supporters at one Gaza rally.
Hamas has insisted it would never recognize the Jewish state, making it unclear how any unity government could get off the ground and also satisfy the West.
The West demands any Palestinian administration renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept past peace deals to restart financial aid, urgently needed to reverse worsening poverty and economic contraction in Gaza and the West Bank.
The Palestinian basic law, which acts as a constitution, has no provision for calling early elections. Fatah officials say Abbas can do so by issuing a presidential decree. Hamas says that would be illegal.
One senior Abbas aide said the polls might not be held until mid-2007 because of legal and technical factors. Abbas has previously said he would not stand for another term.
(Additional reporting by Wafa Amr in Ramallah)