Leaders of rival Palestinian factions on Friday attempted to pull back from the brink of a full-scale war in the Gaza Strip as the toll in street battles between forces of the ruling Hamas party and the Fatah movement rose to 20 dead and almost 200 wounded.

Officials speaking on behalf of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah president, said he and Khaled Mashaal, Hamas’s exiled leader, would meet in Saudi Arabia next week in a further attempt to forge a national unity government that would include their rival parties.

Spokesmen for both sides said there was agreement in principle to restart a ceasefire that broke down on Thursday after less than three days.

The worsening Gaza situation overshadowed the latest attempt by the international quartet to revive the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Officials of the US, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia met in Washington on Friday ahead of a planned US-brokered summit between Mr Abbas and Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister.

Differences appeared be-tween the quartet members as soon as they emerged before the media.

“I don’t think that to resolve this problem, just like any problem that exists in the world, that you could do it through boycott and isolation,” Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said, in reference to US-driven efforts to bring down the Hamas-led Palestinian government. He said Russia would continue to have contacts with Hamas, which he described as a “political force”.

Mr Lavrov and Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, also clashed over Syria. Mr Lavrov spoke approvingly of recent moves by Damascus and said it should not be isolated, while Ms Rice reaffirmed the US position of shunning Syria and said there was no need for its mediation.

Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier also spoke out in favour of engaging Syria.

Clashes in Gaza continued during the day as Fatah forces launched a second assault on the Islamic University, a Hamas stronghold, after raiding the central Gaza City campus the previous night. Fatah officials said arms and weapons- making material were discovered at the campus.

Hamas and Fatah have been at odds since Hamas won elections a year ago and formed a government that is boycotted by the international community because of the Islamists’ refusal to recognise Israel – a condition that the quartet reiterated yesterday.

The political tensions degenerated into violence after the failure of unity government talks last year prompted Mr Abbas to threaten that he would order fresh elections.

Until recently, clashes had been limited to occasional skirmishes, tit-for-tat assassinations and kidnappings. In recent weeks the fighting has become more intense, with the rival forces deploying rockets, mortars and machine-guns.

The latest round of fighting, in which several children were among the civilian casualties, began when Hamas forces attacked a convoy from Egypt that was bound for Mr Abbas’s presidential guard.

Hamas said the trucks were carrying foreign-supplied weapons, while Fatah insisted that only non-lethal goods were on board.

Hamas has claimed that elements within Fatah were attempting to mount a coup d’état using weapons funded by the US and others.

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