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Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has declared Tuesday a day of mourning in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the slaying of three children in Gaza City early Monday morning.
PA and Hamas officials expressed fear that the killings would lead to an all-out confrontation between Fatah and Hamas and appealed for calm.
Palestinians grow restless waiting for Abbas decision on early elections
The latest incident comes as Abbas prepares to deliver a speech in which he will call for early elections in the aftermath of the breakdown of talks with Hamas over the formation of a unity government.
The killings drew strong condemnations from Palestinians representing all walks of life. PA and Fatah officials held Hamas responsible. Fatah leaders called on Abbas to dismiss the Hamas-led government immediately and call early elections.
Monday's attack took place shortly before 7 a.m. in the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City. Unidentified gunmen who were waiting outside a school fired automatic rifles at a car carrying the three sons of Baha Ba'lousheh, a senior officer with the PA General Intelligence Force. The three brothers - Salam, four, Ahmed, seven, and Osama, nine - were killed instantly, as was their driver, Mahmoud al-Habil, 25. A bodyguard who was in the car, Ayman al-Ghul, 25, was moderately wounded, as were four children on their way to school.
"The three children were brutally murdered on their way to school," said a PA security official. "Their car was hit by at least 60 bullets. This is one of the ugliest crimes we have seen here."
He said the assailants, whose faces were covered with masks, managed to flee the scene in a car that was waiting for them.
Although no group claimed responsibility for the attack, PA security officials said they were convinced Hamas members were responsible. They said the children's father had escaped an assassination attempt a few months ago.
Ba'lousheh, who is also a senior Fatah operative in the Gaza Strip, is said to have participated in a massive crackdown that was launched by PA security forces against Hamas in 1996. Sources in Gaza City told The Jerusalem Post that Ba'lousheh had received many death threats from Hamas members over the past few years.
Two months ago, another senior General Intelligence officer, Jad Tayeh, was assassinated in Gaza City in a similar manner. Hamas was also blamed for Tayeh's assassination, although the assassins remain at large.
The children's mother, Linda, said she heard the shooting from her apartment, which is located a few hundred meters away from the scene.
"When I first heard the gunfire, I asked my sister Hinadi, who lives in the same building, to go out and check what's happening," she said. "A few minutes later the neighbors came and told me to go to the hospital and see what they did to my sons."
Flanked by weeping neighbors and relatives, the mother added: "They have destroyed our life completely. I have lost everything. What did the murderers achieve? What kind of an achievement is this? Where is our government? Where is our authority? Until when will this situation continue?"
Following the killings, Fatah leaders held emergency meetings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, after which they urged Abbas to dismiss the Hamas-led government.
"We call on President Abbas to fire this failed and impotent government," said a statement issued by Fatah legislators in Ramallah. "The policies and actions of this government are leading the Palestinians toward civil war."
Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, condemned the killings as an ugly massacre and accused Hamas of standing behind it. The group said its members will execute any Palestinian involved in the murder of innocent people. It also accused Hamas of killing 78 Fatah members in the past few years.
Members of the PA security forces announced they will organize street protests in different locations in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday to condemn the killings and demand an end to the growing state of lawlessness and anarchy.
Former PA security minister Muhammad Dahlan said the killings reminded him of the massacres that were carried out by Muslim fundamentalists in Algiers during the 1990s.
"This despicable crime could result in civil war," he warned. "If the government fails to bring the murderers to justice, then Fatah will be forced to take action."
Col. Mamdouh al-Borno, spokesman for the General Intelligence Force, said he did not believe there was a link between the killing of the children and the assassination attempt on the life of Interior Minister Said Siam of Hamas a day earlier.
"The situation in the Gaza Strip is very dangerous," he said. "The killings are part of a scheme designed to hinder the work of the General Intelligence Force in providing security to the people."
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