Palestinian leader seeks militant truce

Date: Tuesday November 16

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) chief Mahmoud Abbas met has militant leaders in a bid to halt attacks on Israel and allow a smooth election for a successor to Yasser Arafat next year, officials say.

Abbas, a former prime minister who is also seen as a likely presidential candidate for the January 9 poll, opened talks with 14 groups in Gaza late on Monday.

He began a meeting with Hamas on Tuesday and was to hold talks with Islamic Jihad later. The two groups are behind a wave of suicide bombings in the four-year-old Palestinian uprising.

Arafat's death has kindled hopes of a revival in Middle East peacemaking, but also fears of violence between Palestinian factions vying for power. Abbas escaped injury on Sunday in a Gaza gunfight started by angry militants.

Israel has said it will consider renewing peace moves if a new Palestinian leadership curbs attacks.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Tuesday that might start with coordination with Palestinians of his plan to quit the occupied Gaza Strip next year -- initially set down as a unilateral measure.

"If in time we see that there is a Palestinian leadership that is willing to fight terror, we can have security coordination and an agreement regarding the territory of a withdrawal," Sharon said in a meeting with officials of his rightist Likud party.

Confidants of Abbas said he wanted to win over all the groups, including Islamists sworn to Israel's destruction. They in turn might be given greater political influence.

"In the bilateral talks there will be a discussion of specific issues, the issue of a truce or maybe a temporary ceasefire will be discussed because there is a need," said lawmaker Ziad Abu Amr, who is close to Abbas.

Senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar said the group wanted general elections, not held since 1996, including a parliamentary ballot that would loosen the dominant Fatah party's grip on Palestinian politics.

Zahar also told reporters before the Gaza meeting that Hamas would not consider a truce until Israel ceased raids and assassinations in Palestinian areas, among other steps.


As head of the decision-making PLO executive committee, Abbas is the most important figure in the post-Arafat leadership. Arafat's interim successor as president of the Palestinian Authority is parliament speaker Rawhi Fattouh.

Strengthening Abbas's chances as a presidential candidate, powerful former security chief Mohammed Dahlan said on Tuesday that he would support him and did not plan to stand himself.

Some Palestinians have tapped Fatah grassroots leader Marwan Barghouthi as a potential nominee. Barghouthi is serving a jail sentence in Israel for orchestrating attacks in the uprising.

Two independent candidates declared their intention to run for president on Tuesday, but they are little known to ordinary Palestinians and are long-shot challengers to Abbas.

University professor Abdel Sattar Qassem long criticised corruption under Arafat's rule, while Talal Sader served as sports minister and an adviser on religious affairs.

Palestinian militants agreed to suspend attacks during Abbas's stint as premier in mid-2003. But the truce collapsed after a few weeks and a U.S.-backed peace "road map" towards a Palestinian state has been stalled ever since.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, though at odds with the mainstream ideologically, are pushing for a role in a post-Arafat administration.

Israel and the United States are wary of any increased influence by Islamist groups and want to strengthen the hand of those they see as potential peacemakers, like Abbas.

Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is due to visit the West Bank next week for the first time in 18 months, adding substance to President George W. Bush's pledge to help create a Palestinian state during his second four-year term.



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