Gunmen kill Hamas leader in West Bank as Rice to visit

QALQILYA, West Bank - Three masked men shot and killed a Hamas leader as he left a mosque in the West Bank on Wednesday, witnesses said, a day after gunmen from a rival Palestinian faction threatened to kill senior Hamas members.

The violence comes ahead of a visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and amid a power struggle between the ruling Hamas militant movement and the Fatah faction of President Mahmoud Abbas that some fear could lead to civil war.

Rice will hold talks with Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah later on Wednesday before meeting Israeli leaders. On Tuesday, Arab officials who met her in Cairo spoke vehemently of the need to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The top US diplomat has urged an end to Palestinian infighting that has killed at least 12 people this week.

Witnesses said gunmen in the village of Hableh jumped out of a vehicle and shot Mohammed Odeh, 37, as he left the mosque after dawn prayers. They then sped off, witnesses said.

Fatah officials in the nearby town of Qalqilya denied involvement and blamed Israel.

Local Hamas officials said they did not know who was behind the shooting.

Witnesses said the vehicle had Israeli license plates. Cars with such plates are not uncommon in some major Palestinian cities in the occupied West Bank.

The Israeli military denied involvement.

Odeh, described as a local leader of Hamas, died on the way to hospital, ambulance workers said.

The shooting occurred a day after the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed faction of Fatah, threatened in a statement to kill senior Hamas leaders.

Azzam al-Ahmad, head of the Fatah bloc in parliament, said on Wednesday the statement was fabricated. An Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades spokesman in Gaza had confirmed the statement's authenticity.

The violence this week in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank was the worst internal bloodshed since the Palestinian Authority was created in 1994 under interim peace accords with Israel.

The clashes followed stalled efforts by Hamas and Fatah to form a unity government to try to revive Western aid.

Hamas, which advocates Israel's destruction, defeated Fatah in elections in January. The victory led to a cut-off of Western aid to the Palestinian Authority because of Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence.

"Scourge"

Rice's visit to the Middle East coincides with calls by Washington's Arab allies to restart Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Peace talks collapsed in 2000 before a Palestinian uprising began and the prospects of reviving negotiations dimmed further when Hamas won elections.

The Egyptian and Saudi foreign ministers, speaking after talks with Rice in Cairo, did not directly demand Washington do more to promote peace talks but both made clear they hoped renewed US efforts would help.

"The Palestinian problem is the scourge of this region," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said.

"The issue is how to make peace. And in order to make peace, you have to identify the problem, the cause of whatever that is happening in this part of the world ... and we keep telling everybody that it is the Palestinian problem and the lack of a settlement for the Palestinians."

Rice is visiting the region to try to garner Arab support for Abbas as well as embattled governments in Lebanon and Iraq.

- REUTERS

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