Hamas gunmen overran the headquarters of a Fatah-allied security force in northern Gaza, scoring a key victory in what is rapidly shifting into full-fledged civil war.
Hamas has been systematically taking control of outlying areas in the north, apparently leaving the main battle for the strip's security and political nerve center in Gaza City for the last.
Battles over security positions spread to central Gaza early Wednesday, and gunmen fought for control of high-rise buildings in Gaza City that serve as sniper positions. Hamas also said it seized and bulldozed a key Fatah outpost that controls Gaza's main north-south road.
The latest fighting between the two factions, which nominally share power in the Palestinian government, has taken the conflict from the level of street skirmishes to pitched battles between large, heavily armed forces. Better-trained Fatah forces displayed lack of leadership and motivation against the gunmen of the Islamic Hamas, and in some cases were outgunned.
Frightened civilians were trapped in their homes. "I don't know what to do to comfort my children," said Wafa Jaber, a mother of five pinned down by gunfire in her apartment.
Dozens have been killed since Monday, including 17 in the battle over the northern security compound. Two people died of wounds Wednesday.
The power struggle escalated further when Fatah suspended the activities of its ministers in the government it shares with Hamas. In an emergency meeting in the West Bank, the movement warned it would pull out of the government if the fighting doesn't stop, said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an aide to Fatah's leader, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Confrontations have turned increasingly brutal in recent days, with some killed execution-style in the streets, others in hospital shootouts or thrown off rooftops.
Battles raged across the strip Tuesday. The staccato of gunfire echoed across Gaza City, plumes of smoke rose into the air from far-flung neighborhoods and one battle sent a dozen preschoolers scrambling for cover.
In one desperate attempt to boost morale, disorganized Fatah forces attacked Hamas' main TV station, but were repelled after a heavy battle. The Hamas TV station later showed a group of captured men it said were among the attackers, blood streaming down their faces.
The headquarters of the Fatah-allied security forces in northern Gaza, a strategic prize for Hamas, was taken by the Islamic militants after several hours of battle. Some 200 Hamas fighters fired mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at the compound, where some 500 Fatah loyalists were holed up and returned fire. Thirty-five jeeploads of Fatah fighters were sent as reinforcements, but never made it through Hamas roadblocks. After nightfall, Hamas seized control.
A survivor of the Hamas assault said the Fatah forces were outgunned and that reinforcements never arrived. "We were pounded with mortar, mortar, mortar," the Fatah fighter, who only gave his first name as Amjad, said excitedly and out of breath. "They had no mercy. It was boom, boom. They had rockets that could reach almost half of the compound."
On Wednesday, Hamas said it seized a Fatah post on the main north-south road, where security forces often stopped cars carrying Hamas supporters. Hamas said it brought a bulldozer to flatten the post, made up of a mobile home and several shacks.
In the Shati refugee camp, a mortar shell hit the home of a deputy Cabinet minister from Hamas, setting it on flames, security officials said.
In the West Bank, Abbas met with Fatah movement leaders to mull options. Some urged him to leave the coalition government with Hamas, established three months ago; declare a state of emergency and assume sweeping powers; or call early elections. However, none of the options was appealing, and was likely to lead only to more turmoil.
There was concern that fighting might spread to the West Bank, where Fatah has the upper hand, as Hamas rang up victories in Gaza. Late Tuesday, Fatah gunmen wounded four Hamas activists in the West Bank city of Nablus, Fatah said in a statement.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed stationing international forces along the Gaza Strip's volatile border with Egypt to prevent arms from reaching Palestinian militants, including Hamas. However, he ruled out assistance to Abbas' forces.
Human Rights Watch blamed both sides. "Fatah and Hamas military forces have summarily executed captives, killed people not involved in hostilities, and engaged in gun battles with one another inside and near Palestinian hospitals," the international rights group said in a statement.
The United Nations warned that its efforts to supply refugees with assistance were in jeopardy because of the fighting. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which aids Palestinian refugees, said three of its five food distribution centers and seven of its 18 clinics were closed because of Gaza fighting.
"We are extremely concerned for the plight of the one million refugees who depend on UNRWA's food assistance and medical services," said the agency's Gaza director, John Ging.
Hamas and Fatah have waged a power struggle in fits and spurts for the past year since Hamas won parliament elections, ending four decades of Fatah rule. On Tuesday, Hamas signaled it was moving into a decisive phase. It ignored pleas by Abbas and exasperated Egyptian mediators to honor a cease-fire, and appeared to be moving ahead according to a plan.
"Decisiveness will be in the field," said Islam Shahwan, spokesman for the Hamas military wing.
In contrast, Fatah commanders complained they were not given clear orders by Abbas to fight back and that they had no central command. Fatah's strongman in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, has spent the last few weeks in Cairo for treatment of a knee injury. Other leading Fatah officials left Gaza for the West Bank after previous rounds of bloodshed.
"There's a difference between leading on the ground and leading by mobile phone," police Col. Nasser Khaldi said of Dahlan's absence. "Hamas is just taking over our positions. There are no orders."
Both sides have been arming themselves in recent weeks, smuggling weapons through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.
The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, warning of a "very dangerous security situation" in Gaza, advised journalists not to travel there. They also urged American journalists already there to leave.
Even before the current outbreak of violence, no Western correspondents were based in Gaza. As the violence escalated this week, most reporters were staying off the streets, covering the conflict from the windows of high-rise buildings and keeping in touch with sources by telephone.