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Palestinian Political Unrest Spreads from Gaza to West Bank - 2004-08-01

Supporters of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat disrupted a meeting of Palestinian politicians seeking reforms of the Palestinian Authority, firing guns in the air. The incident marks a spread in Palestinian infighting.

About 20 armed Palestinians loyal to Mr. Arafat burst into a conference of the president's own Fatah faction Sunday in the West Bank city of Nablus. The men fired rifles into the air and above the stage where speakers were seated, breaking up the meeting, but causing no injuries.

The conference was called to press for reforms in the Palestinian Authority and for long-delayed elections for a new parliament.

The gunmen said they belonged to the al-Awda Brigades, a small militant group. A spokesman for the group said they believed the Fatah conference was part of a conspiracy to undermine Mr. Arafat.

The incident came one day after members of the armed wing of Fatah, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, set fire to the governor's building in Jenin, also in the West Bank.

Just hours earlier, Palestinian militants kidnapped three foreign citizens in Nablus. The hostages were reportedly freed after the Palestinian Authority offered to pay a ransom to the kidnappers.

Some Palestinian officials blame the unrest on a former security chief in the Gaza Strip, Mohammed Dahlan, a leading figure in the campaign to reform the Palestinian Authority.

He was quoted in interviews as saying that if Mr. Arafat fails to carry out real political reforms within the next 10 days, there will be mass demonstrations against his rule in the Gaza Strip.