Hamas blamed Fatah for the West Bank attacks, which came only hours after four Fatah loyalists were killed in battles with Hamas forces in Gaza. Clashes also erupted on Thursday during the funeral for the victims of Wednesday's fighting in Gaza, and five people were wounded.

 

Tensions

 

In response to the renewed fighting, the prime minister cut short a tour of Arab nations and returned to Gaza on Thursday.

 

Ismail Haniya's next stop was to have been Jordan, which has offered to host a meeting between him and Abbas in an attempt to defuse tensions between the political rivals. With Haniya returning to Gaza, it is unlikely that they will meet soon.

 

Both sides have hardened their stance in recent weeks. Talks on forming a unity government have broken down and Abbas has threatened to call early elections. But he may not have enough clout to go through with the plan, denounced by the Hamas-led government as a coup attempt.

 

In another mediation attempt, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, will meet Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, to try to restart Middle East peace talks and free an Israeli soldier held by Hamas-allied fighters in Gaza.

 

Israeli media reported that Mubarak would propose a regional peace summit involving Israel, the Palestinians, Egypt and Jordan, but Olmert's aides said they were unaware of such a proposal.

 

Official kidnapped

 

On Wednesday, after a day of violent clashes in Gaza, armed men stormed the home of Bashar Karmi, the deputy health minister, in the West Bank town of El Bireh and forced him into their car at gunpoint.

 

Karmi said that the kidnappers placed a hood over his head, handcuffed him and moved him from one location to another, before releasing him five hours later. The kidnappers warned him that if the fighting continues in Gaza, it will spread to the West Bank.

 

"If Hamas keeps doing what it is doing with its militia in Gaza, and is killing our members, all Hamas leaders in the West Bank are in our hands"

Jamal Tirawi, Fatah legislator
In the West Bank town of Jenin, assailants set on fire the car of Wasfi Kabaha, the prisoner affairs minister. It was the third attack on a car owned by Kabaha.

 

In the village of Jabaa, men fired in the air as the local prayer leader and Hamas activist, Nasser Al Awna, emerged from the mosque. He was not harmed.

 

Jamal Tirawi, a Fatah legislator, said that Hamas leaders in the West Bank could be attacked again.

 

"If Hamas keeps doing what it is doing with its militia in Gaza, and is killing our members, all Hamas leaders in the West Bank are in our hands," Tirawi, a former member of the Fatah-allied Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, said.

 

Hamas said in a statement on its website that "those in Fatah who are plotting a coup are trying to escalate tension in the Palestinian street".

 

Funeral attacked

 

In Gaza, meanwhile, thousands joined the funeral procession for three Fatah loyalists killed in gun battles with Hamas on Wednesday. In all, five people were killed on Wednesday, including a woman bystander.

 

At Thursday's funeral, marchers fired automatic rifles in the air and chanted anti-Hamas slogans.

 

AFP photographer Jaime Razuri was kidnapped
in Gaza on Monday [AFP]
Five mourners were wounded in two separate incidents.

 

Fatah said the procession in the Mughazi refugee camp came under fire from a building housing a Hamas kindergarten and mosque. Hamas said mourners had vandalised the mosque, but denied that its gunmen opened fire on the procession. Two people were hurt.

 

Nearby, three Fatah loyalists were wounded as they passed by a Hamas-manned checkpoint, hospital officials said.

 

In other developments, a smuggling tunnel under the Gaza-Egypt border collapsed. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

 

Palestinian smugglers use tunnels under the border to bring weapons and contraband goods into Gaza from Egypt.

Palestinian journalists staged a sit-in protest in Gaza City to demand the release of a Peruvian photographer, Jaime Razuri of the French news agency Agence France-Presse, who was seized at gunpoint on Monday.

His condition and whereabouts are unknown.