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Friday, 21 December, 2001, 22:39 GMT
Six killed in Gaza clashes
Palestinian protesters evacuate an injured boy
This is the worst intra-Palestinian violence in years
Six people have been killed and over 60 wounded in gunbattles with Palestinian police in the Gaza Strip, as the militant group Hamas said it was suspending attacks inside Israel.

The dead in the refugee camp of Jabaliya in northern Gaza included a 14-year-old boy who died several hours after being shot.

Police spray
Palestinian police have closed down Hamas offices

Correspondents say Mr Arafat's crackdown on militants - forced on him by Israel and the Americans - has now led to the worst Palestinian on Palestinian violence in years.

Another radical group, Islamic Jihad, has said it too is considering suspending suicide attacks.

Israel has given a sceptical reaction to the Hamas announcement, while the United States called for a halt to all violence and urged Yasser Arafat to take more action against militants.

The Palestinians say the ball is now in Israel's court to help halt the last 15 months of conflict as they try to contain their own internal divisions.

Intra-Palestinian tensions

The announcement came amid a fierce confrontation between Islamic militants and Palestinian police trying to arrest them.

The trouble started on Thursday when police began arresting supporters of Hamas, which has said it was responsible for the recent bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa that killed 25 Israelis.

Israeli tank withdraws
Israeli troops have made incursions into Palestinian areas

Armed clashes erupted after the funeral of a Palestinian youth shot dead in Jabaliya on Thursday.

They had broken out after Palestinian police chased gunmen who had been trying to fire mortars at a Jewish settlement on occupied Palestinian land.

There was further trouble in central Gaza, when about 400 Hamas supporters attacked a police station where they believed Hamas supporters were being held.

Struggle continues

The Hamas statement, which came after leaders of the group met representatives of Mr Arafat, said: "We announce the stopping of all martyr operations in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1948 and an end to all mortar shelling.

Founded 14 December 1987, just after the the first intifada began
An estimated 700-1,200 core members and tens of thousands of supporters
Labelled a "terrorist group" by the US and the EU
Does not recognise the right of Israel to exist and wants an Islamic state established

"This decision is to protect our Palestinian national union and to guard our way of struggle until we get our independence, although we know the Israeli occupation and its aggression policy will continue."

There is no suggestion of any halt to attacks on Israeli targets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

And the group's armed wing has made clear that the truce will not hold if Israel continues its controversial policy of killing Hamas militants or if it attacks Palestinian civilians.

Israel immediately dismissed the announcement.

"This is a tactical move by Hamas which is a terrorist organisation," said Gideon Meir, a senior Foreign Ministry official.

Mr Meir said the Palestinian Authority had made a deal with Hamas to postpone its police crackdown in return for a temporary halt to suicide bombings in Israel.

The US White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said: "All terror activities everywhere must stop immediately. Ensuring this is Chairman Arafat's responsibility.

"Hamas is a terrorist organisation. It remains Chairman Arafat's responsibility to demonstrate that he does not want terrorism to be practiced in the Middle East," Mr Fleischer said.

The BBC's Jeremy Cooke
"There could still be attacks on the West Bank or the Gaza strip"
Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson Yaffa Ben Ari
"Words have no meanings until they've been transformed into actions"
Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Al-Zahar
"If the Israeli aggression continues we are going to resume our activities"
See also:

20 Dec 01 | Middle East
Israeli tanks pull back
20 Dec 01 | Middle East
Hamas may end suicide attacks
16 Dec 01 | Middle East
Arafat pleads for talks with Israel
16 Dec 01 | Middle East
Palestinian police shut out militants
13 Dec 01 | Middle East
Palestinian leader's house raided
13 Dec 01 | Media reports
Palestinian radio hits back at Israel
13 Dec 01 | Middle East
US and EU to maintain Arafat link
12 Dec 01 | Middle East
Arafat says Sharon has him marked
21 Dec 01 | Middle East
Analysis: Reasons for Hamas truce call
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