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Abbas denies asylum to supporters from Gaza
An Israeli soldier walks behind as a medic wheels an injured Palestinian believed to be a Fatah supporter who fled fighting in the Gaza Strip and crossed into Israel, at the Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon, southern Israel, Sunday, Aug. 3, 2008. Most of the 180 Fatah supporters who fled into Israel from a deadly Hamas crackdown over the weekend will be sent back into the Gaza Strip on Sunday, Israeli and Palestinian officials said. - photo by Associated Press
    RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday refused to grant West Bank asylum to forces who fled weekend faction fighting in Hamas-ruled Gaza, despite fears for their safety.
    Abbas ordered nearly 200 fighters back to Gaza from Israel, insisting a Fatah presence must be retained in the territory, which has been controlled by Hamas since a violent takeover in June 2007. Fatah is not prepared to write off Gaza, and Abbas also fears that an entrenched Hamas there could export rebellion to the West Bank, where he rules.
    Hamas confirmed it detained the first group of 32 who were sent back to Gaza on Sunday, but said it released all but five in that group.
    The wrangling over the fate of the 188 Fatah refugees came a day after the bloodiest Hamas-Fatah fighting since Hamas took control of Gaza. In all, 11 people were killed and dozens wounded during a Hamas raid on a Fatah stronghold in Gaza City on Saturday.
    The latest round of internal fighting began on July 25 with a car bomb that killed five Hamas members in Gaza City. Hamas, blaming Fatah, rounded up dozens of Fatah activists, and Fatah, which controls the West Bank, responded with arrest sweeps of Hamas supporters.
    On Saturday, Hamas raided a Gaza City stronghold of the Hilles clan, whose leaders support Fatah but have also forged ties with Hamas in the past year. The two sides battled for hours, firing mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.
    As Hamas forces took control of the area Saturday afternoon, dozens of Hilles clan members fled toward the nearby Israeli border crossing of Nahal Oz.
    ‘‘We crawled to the border, that was our solution, and I think we stayed at the border for two or three hours until the (Israeli) army let the injured enter,’’ said Shadi Hilles, one of the wounded clan members hospitalized in Israel.
    Col. Ron Ashrov, an Israeli military commander in the area, said that when Israeli soldiers went to open the gate, heavy fire erupted from Hamas forces. He said 22 of those who crossed were injured.
    The escape posed a dilemma for Abbas.
    After the Hamas takeover of Gaza last summer, he agreed to resettle some 250 of his Gaza loyalists in the West Bank.
    It’s been a costly arrangement — the refugees each get $350 a month, in addition to government salaries, and Abbas’ cash-strapped government covers rent for dozens of the most senior among them. The 2007 exodus also sent a message that Fatah is abandoning Gaza to Hamas.
    Abbas wanted to send a different message this time, aides said.
    ‘‘Fatah officials in Gaza should stay in their posts and should not leave Gaza to Hamas,’’ Fahmi Zaghrir, a West Bank spokesman for Fatah, said Sunday. An exception would be made for those wanted by Hamas, added Nimr Hamad, an Abbas adviser.
    In Jordan for talks on Sunday, Abbas called for dialogue to solve the dispute. He said the Palestinians must ‘‘continue to hope, even if we fight between each other or have differences.’’
    At least three refugees won assurances they’ll be able to settle in the West Bank, among them Ahmed Hilles, the clan leader, and two other’s on the Hamas wanted list. Negotiations between the clan and Abbas’ office over the fate of about a dozen others were continuing Sunday.
    Ahmed Hilles was recovering in an Israeli hospital Sunday from a bullet wound in his leg. Hilles had long been one of the most powerful Fatah figures in Gaza, along with former strongman Mohammed Dahlan.
    Unlike Dahlan, who had frequent run-ins with Hamas, Hilles was seen as a mediator. He is a longtime friend of Ahmed Jaberi, head of Hamas’ military wing, and the two were imprisoned together in Israel.
    As a result, Hamas forces largely left the Hilles clan alone and in possession of its weapons after the 2007 takeover.
    On Sunday, Hamas police displayed a large weapons cache it said was seized from warehouses and underground hiding places near the Hilles compound.
    Police laid out 16 land mines, five mortar launchers, several rocket propelled grenades, different types of explosive devices, homemade rockets and 25 Kalashnikov assault rifles.
    Col. Abdel Basset Masri of the Hamas police said 200 people were arrested in Saturday’s raid, including suspects in the July 25 car bombing. He said not all of those detained were Hilles clan members.
    Hilles, speaking from his hospital bed in Israel, said Hamas ‘‘will quickly discover it committed a very big act of stupidity’’ in going after his clan, but he did not elaborate.
    A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said those who fled and were sent back to Gaza would be questioned. Any not involved in ‘‘criminal acts’’ would be released, he said.
    Still, the ongoing crackdown on political opponents, both in the West Bank and in Gaza, prompted concern about the fate of the returnees.
    Last week, two human rights groups reported that torture is widespread in lockups of both Hamas and Fatah.
    Ibrahim Barzak contributed to this report from Gaza City. Additional reporting by Dalia Nammari and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah.

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