PA downplays shooting that may have targeted Abbas

By Arnon Regular and Jack Khoury, Haaretz Correspondents and Agencies At least two people were killed Sunday when dozens of armed men belonging to Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades opened fire on the official mourning tent for Yasser Arafat in the Gaza Strip. They apparently directed their fire toward PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and former minister of security Mohammed Dahlan, who were in the tent and were not hurt by the gunfire. Both Abbas and Dahlan denied that the gunmen were attempting to carry out an assassination, with Abbas and other witnesses saying the gunmen were firing in the air. One of the men killed was Abbas’ personal bodyguard and belonged to Force 17, and the other was a member of Mohammed Dahlan’s preventive security force. Using Arafat’s nom de guerre, the masked gunmen later identified themselves as the „Abu Ammar Brigades,” declaring their aim was „to continue the way of Yasser Arafat.” The group’s name is a general apellation within Fatah for those supporting the continuation of the intifada and opposing the breakup of the brigades and political negotiations. Some of the gunmen shouted slogans calling Abbas, a moderate who has spoken out against violence, an agent of the United States. They also shouted „No to Abu Mazen” as they walked by him and began firing shots into the air.

Several hours earlier, the group had declared the existence of a new rocket, the „Yasser 1,” with an 18-kilometer range capable of reaching targets within Israel and shouted that Abbas and Dahlan were „collaborators” and „traitors.” Other VIPs present in the tent included Arafat’s nephew Nasser al-Kidwa, Gaza’s head of military intelligence Mussa Arafat and head of the general intelligence in the Gaza Strip, Amin al-Hindi. Abbas and Dahlan arrived at the mourning tent at about 6 P.M. Sunday near the helicopter pad at Arafat’s home on the beach in Gaza City. A short time later, after the two had begun to receive public officials as well as ordinary mourners who had come from across the Gaza Strip to express their condolences, the group of gunmen appeared. According to eyewitnesses, guards on the outer perimeter began to fight with the group, most of which was armed, as it approached the tent. Seconds later, the guards and the gunmen exchanged fire and the two bodyguards were killed by gunshot wounds to the neck. The guards closest to Abbas and Dahlan immediately closed in around them and hurried them out of the tent. The group subsequently published a leaflet claiming responsibility for an „assassination attempt” on the two. „We warn the pretenders to the legacy of Yasser Arafat, no matter how senior they are, not to think of stopping the intifada and betraying Yasser Arafat’s legacy.” Abbas, however, denied the incident was an assassination attempt. „What happened had no political or personal character. What happened was that we came in and began to receive the mourners. Because of the powerful emotions surrounding Arafat’s death, it became very crowded and unintentional firing into the air started. We were then advised to leave the premises and we did so. „I did not hear any calls against me or against anyone. This act is a sign that must be looked at closely; it is the result of the previous situation in the PA. Any responsible person must act so these things do not continue. The people are demonstrating their feelings and sometimes the situation declines, as was the case at Arafat’s funeral in Ramallah.” Dahlan said the incident was „the result of a certain confusion in the guarding of the compound, but it was not an assassination attempt.” Since Arafat’s death, a number of groups in Fatah have named themselves after Arafat and have begun to tangle with supporters of Dahlan and Abbas. The activities of the groups, supported by senior figures in the Palestinian Authority, are designed to undermine Abbas’ authority and the moves he is coordinating with Dahlan. Al Jazeera TV, whose cameramen were in the tent when the incident took place, was the first to report the gunshots, interrupting regular broadcasting to transmit pictures with large captions describing the incident as an assassination attempt. Based on the Al Jazeera report, other Arab stations, especially in Lebanon, began reporting that an assassination attempt had taken place. Within a few minutes, the PA leaders, headed by Abbas, Dahlan and former minister and member of the PLO Central Committee Yasser Abed Rabbo, stepped forward to deny reports of an assassination attempt. „There was no assassination attempt,” Dahlan stressed. „I was there, and no one threatened me or Abu Mazen. „There were thousands of people there, some of whom were armed and among whom there is tension, and shots were fired that were not directed at anyone in particular. The shots are a sign of the chaos and anger in the Palestinian Authority that require urgent action,” Dahlan said. „I would expect that a station like Al Jazeera would be more practical,” Dahlan added. His appeal was heeded, and in a few moments the caption on the story was changed to „Dahlan denies reports of an assassination attempt on Abu Mazen.” Yasser Abed Rabbo said senior PA officials have no reason to hide the truth. „We are not making light of the event, but the facts are that the shots were not fired toward Abu Mazen. This was a chance event and not a deliberate one.” BPI-info