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Rival Palestinian Factions Battle in Gaza Despite Ceasefire

Fighting has erupted between rival Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip, testing a two-day-old ceasefire. At least three people were killed and 18 wounded, including several school children caught in the crossfire. Robert Berger reports from the VOA bureau in Jerusalem.

Gunfire could be heard throughout Gaza City, as militiamen from the ruling Islamic militant group Hamas and the rival Fatah faction fought fierce battles. Clashes erupted at a hospital and at a key security agency controlled by Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas. Terrified residents stayed indoors as masked gunmen armed with rifles and hand grenades patrolled the streets.

A Gaza woman named Saida described the situation on Israel Radio.

"You feel that you are unsecure [insecure] anywhere or any time," she said. "You feel that any minute you can die."

The gun battles are testing a shaky ceasefire aimed at halting a week of unrest that has raised fears of a Palestinian civil war. Fighting escalated Saturday after Mr. Abbas called early elections in a bid to topple the Hamas government. Hamas has been crippled by international sanctions, imposed because of its refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

President Abbas says Hamas' rule has left people in poverty and without security. He opted for early elections after talks on a national unity government in which Hamas and Fatah would share power collapsed.

Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat of Fatah says Hamas has two choices: a national unity government or elections.

"I'm afraid that without either solution accepted, this ceasefire that we want to stand cannot stand," he said.

While Hamas says it supports a national unity government, it rejects the terms, namely, recognition of Israel. And it rejects early elections outright, describing that as a coup d'état.

Mr. Abbas says elections will take place despite the violence.