GAZA - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party cancelled election primaries in the Gaza Strip after gunmen stormed some polling stations, complaining the vote was unfair, party officials said.
The violence by armed men belonging to Fatah, was a blow to Abbas' efforts to exert control over Gaza, territory Israel quit in September and which is widely seen as a testing ground for Palestinian statehood.
Fatah said in a statement that today's primaries to pick its candidates for legislative polls due in January were void because of what it termed "serious violations that made it impossible to continue with the election process".
The ballot would have to be repeated and a decision on a date would be made later, the statement said.
Gunmen had forcibly shut down all polling stations in the central Gaza Strip and the southern town of Khan Younis before the vote was called off, although voting had continued in Gaza City despite reports of irregularities.
The militants complained that names of thousands of eligible voters were missing from election rolls. Some of the gunmen burned tyres in the streets, while others seized or set fire to ballot boxes. No injuries were reported.
"We have been let down by our movement. We feel this election is false and the list of winners is pre-determined," said Abu Anan, spokesman for the Knights of the Tempest, a Fatah splinter group that said it had shut down five centres.
Last week, voters in primaries in the occupied West Bank cast aside veteran Fatah politicians in favour of newcomers and militants.
A strong primary showing by young Fatah leaders demanding a say in decision-making could help Abbas meet a challenge by powerful Hamas militants running in national elections for the first time, analysts said.
Hamas seeks Israel's destruction and is are expected to do well in the January polls.
"What happened today and what could happen in the future could be used as a pretext to delay the parliament election," said Palestinian commentator Hani Habib.
Some analysts, however, said weakening the Fatah old guard that thrived under the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and which was widely seen as corrupt, risked touching off infighting that might further split the ruling party.
Members of Fatah's younger leadership had demanded primaries, seeking to challenge the dominance of veteran politicians, many of whom spent years in exile with Arafat before interim peace accords allowed them to return.
In the last parliamentary polls in 1996, Arafat handpicked Fatah's candidates.
But the current primaries in both Gaza and the West Bank have been dogged by violence and complaints of fraud. In the West Bank city of Nablus, 28 candidates complained of ballot stuffing.
In Ramallah, the seat of Palestinian politics, one winning candidate, Abdel Fattah Hemayel, accused Palestinian forces of interfering in the vote and demanded an inquiry into what he termed "widespread fraud".
In Gaza City, an election supervisor who asked not to be named said officials had not had enough time to prepare, but had been under pressure from Abbas not to delay the primary. Abbas has vowed to hold parliamentary polls on time.