RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called Saturday for elections to end his violent standoff with Hamas – a gamble that Palestinians will back him as he seeks to weaken the Islamic militants, avoid civil war and keep momentum for peace overtures with Israel.

Hamas accused Abbas of trying to topple its government, promised to block the elections and urged supporters to take to the streets. “This is a real coup,” said Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas hard-liner.

Hours later, dozens of Hamas gunmen attacked a training base of Abbas’ presidential guard near the president’s home and office in Gaza City, the presidential guard said. One guard was killed and three were wounded in the fierce, early-morning battle that ensued today, a guard statement said.

Abbas was in the West Bank town of Ramallah at the time of the attack.

On Saturday, thousands of Hamas supporters marched in protest and 18 Palestinians were wounded in clashes between the two political camps in Gaza.

Hamas’ landslide election in January parliamentary elections split the Palestinian leadership into two camps. One, led by Abbas, seeks peace with Israel; the other, led by Islamic Hamas militants, is sworn to the Jewish state’s destruction. The infighting has often degenerated into convulsions of violence, and this week, tensions reached their highest peak in years.

Abbas tried to end the power struggle by bringing Hamas into a more moderate coalition with his Fatah Party, but the Islamic group refused to pay the price he demanded – recognizing Israel and renouncing violence.

“We have a crisis. We have an authority with two heads. So what do we do? Bullets or ballots?” asked Saeb Erekat, an aide to Abbas. “Abu Mazen said ballots,” he said, using Abbas’ nickname.

Across the West Bank and Gaza, streets were largely deserted as everyone watched Abbas’ 90-minute address, peppered with criticism of Hamas.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged the international community to support Abbas, while State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said it was “an issue for the Palestinian people to decide through a peaceful political process.” Russia asked the Palestinians to try to maintain unity.

Abbas said a unity government was still the best option, but that he had despaired of persuading Hamas to enter into a coalition with Fatah. The Hamas government has drawn crushing international sanctions over its militantly anti-Israel stand, but has refused to recognize Israel, the West’s condition for resuming aid.

“I … decided to call for early presidential and parliament elections,” Abbas said from his West Bank headquarters, after outlining months of failed coalition talks. “Let us return to the people, to hear their word, and let them be the judge.”

His aides said they expected the vote to be held by the summer. In coming days, Abbas is to meet with the Central Election Commission to hear how much time it will need to prepare. Once he issues a formal decree calling for elections, the balloting must take place within three months.

In an immediate step toward parliamentary and presidential elections, Abbas announced he has appointed new Fatah leaders. Fatah officials said the party’s younger leaders, who had long clamored for a role in decision-making, would now be given a chance. Fatah’s old guard had refused to step aside, a key reason the movement remained in disarray after its election defeat.

Abbas also said he has revived the Palestine Liberation Organization negotiating department, signaling he would pursue peace talks with Israel.

However, his decision to call elections is fraught with risks.

It immediately hardened the lines between the rival camps, at a time when factional fighting threatens to escalate into civil war. In recent days, Fatah-allied security forces and Hamas gunmen clashed in the streets, and Hamas accused an Abbas ally of trying to kill its prime minister.

Fatah and Hamas supporters traded fire and hurled stones at each other in towns across the Gaza Strip after Abbas’ announcement. Eighteen people were wounded, including seven who were shot, according to reports from hospital officials and Hamas. The confrontations involved just a small number of the tens of thousands who rallied across Gaza in support for each side.

In his speech, Abbas said Hamas was ignoring reality. At one point, he warned Hamas not to try to “terrorize” him by claiming its rule was God’s will.

Hamas leaders said the speech’s confrontational tone made it clear Abbas was no longer a partner. “Abu Mazen is not part of the solution anymore. He is part of the problem now,” said Ahmed Yousef, senior adviser to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.

Yousef said Hamas would try to block the election. “We will challenge him everywhere,” he said.

Elections could be stripped of legitimacy if boycotted by Hamas and other political factions. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a smaller PLO faction that had participated in parliament elections in January, said it rejected Abbas’ call for early elections.

Several Palestinian faction leaders based in Syria also rejected Abbas’ decision.

“Any step outside the context of the laws is rejected by us all and this is not just the position of Hamas,” said Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. “The position that we have expressed today is the position of the 10 Palestinian factions whose history, performance and weight on the ground is well-known.”

Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shallah, who met with Mashaal in Damascus, urged Hamas and Fatah to reach an agreement, calling Abbas’ decision “lawless.”

“We believe that such a call will regrettably take us to the unknown,” Shallah said in an interview with the Al-Jazeera satellite station.

Abbas, 71, was elected president in 2005. If he does not run again – he has said he would not seek another four-year term – Palestinian moderates would not have a strong candidate.

Hamas, if it decided to participate, could field Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, according to polls the most popular politician after Abbas.

During times of political turmoil, any efforts to resume peace talks with Israel would likely be frozen. In recent weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he was willing to give up large parts of the West Bank in a peace deal, and that he was ready to talk peace.

Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Olmert “respects Abu Mazen and hopes that he will have the capability to assert his leadership over the Palestinian people, and to bring about a government that will comply with the international community’s principles.”

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AP reporters Mohammed Daraghmeh, Sarah El Deeb and Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.

AP-ES-12-16-06 2315EST


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