Deadly shoot-out in West Bank

NABLUS: Six people were killed in a West Bank shoot-out on Sunday when an attempt to arrest a senior Hamas commander went awry, deepening the rift between the two main Palestinian factions.

The Islamist Hamas movement ruling the Gaza Strip warned that the rival Fatah group loyal to president Mahmud Abbas had crossed a "red line" over the killing of one of its top fighters in the arrest operation.

The gunfight erupted when Palestinian police dominated by Fatah tried to arrest Mohammed al-Samman, the commander of Hamas's armed wing in the northern West Bank who was also on Israel's wanted list.

Samman barricaded himself in a house in the town of Qalqiliya in the north of the Israeli-occupied territory together with Mohammed Yassin, another Hamas militant, police and Hamas said.

The ensuing shoot-out killed both Hamas men, three Palestinian policemen and a civilian. A curfew was imposed on the town near the border with Israel following the incident, police said.

Hamas branded the incident a "red line" and said it laid "complete responsibility of this ugly crime on Abbas and his security forces."

Describing Abbas and his forces as agents of arch-enemy Israel, Hamas said in a statement that it would respond "with acts," without elaborating.

"There is no difference between the occupation who shoots and the people who carry out their missions for them," a spokesman for Hamas's armed wing said at a press conference in Gaza.

The deep-seated rivalries between Hamas and Fatah boiled over in June 2007 when the Islamists violently seized control of Gaza, causing a split in Palestinian ranks that has become a key stumbling block in efforts to reach Middle East peace.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said there was no chance of further reconciliation talks with Fatah after the "escalation by security services of Abu Mazen and Fatah against Hamas and its leaders in the West Bank."

"Fatah should choose -- dialogue with us or doing the dirty work of the Zionist enemy," Barhum said as Hamas decried the killing over mosque loudspeakers in Gaza City.

A senior official from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority dismissed the Hamas accusations as "lies."

"The Palestinian Authority has one duty -- to impose security and the law and we will not allow what happened in Gaza to happen here in the West Bank under any circumstances," he said on condition of anonymity.

A spokesman for Palestinian security forces, Adnan Damiri, defended the arrest operation.

"We in the Palestinian security branches are not a political force. We are security. We will not allow any Palestinian party to have guns and threaten civilians."

Damiri also said that during the arrest, police discovered Hamas leaflets containing "incitement against the Palestinian Authority and against the Palestinian security branches."

"We consider what happened today as very dangerous," he said. "It was an attempt to destroy any hope of resuming the (reconciliation) dialogue."

Abbas's power based has been limited to the occupied West Bank since Hamas booted his Fatah party out of the Gaza Strip, which remains under a crippling Israeli blockade.

The two factions held five rounds of talks under Egyptian mediation in an attempt to reconcile but to no avail and the two sides have frequently accused their rivals of campaigns of persecution.

Rights group Amnesty International has lambasted both Hamas and Fatah for arbitrary detentions, torture and suppression of freedom of speech in their respective areas of control.

The Western-backed Abbas swore in a new Palestinian cabinet that includes members of Fatah but not Hamas on May 20, further widening the sectarian rift.