Palestinian leaders in peace talks

LEADERS of the rival Hamas and Fatah groups headed for Saudi Arabia today for talks aimed at ending factional warfare and forming a unity government that could end a crippling Western embargo.

Previous efforts to stem the bloodshed and find common political ground have resulted in short-lived ceasefires and in a threat by President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah to call a new election – which Hamas has said would be tantamount to a coup.

Complicating the Saudi mediation efforts, Israel and the US do not want Mr Abbas to agree to a unity government that stops short of recognising the Jewish state, renouncing violence and abiding by interim peace deals.

“We promise our people that we will do all we can and will exert every effort in order to reach a Palestinian agreement over the formation of a unity government,” Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said.

Speaking as he headed for Gaza’s border with Egypt, from where he was due to take a flight to Saudi Arabia, Mr Haniyeh said he was optimistic leaders would return with a deal “that will heal the wounds, end tensions and reinforce national unity”.

The deaths of three Palestinians yesterday from injuries suffered in factional fighting over the weekend raised to 90 the number of people killed in internal clashes since December, when Mr Abbas raised the prospect of an early ballot.

Mr Abbas and Damascus-based Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal were due to head separately to the talks in the holy city of Mecca.

Mr Abbas, a moderate whose presidential guard receives training and non-lethal equipment from US funds, said he would give talks one last chance to form a coalition government with Hamas.

Tensions have spiralled in the Gaza Strip since Hamas, an Islamist group whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction, trounced Fatah in elections last year, prompting the West to suspend aid unless it moderates its stand.

The latest in a series of ceasefires appeared to be holding in the narrow, densely populated territory, where 1.5 million Palestinians live.

But yesterday gunmen in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun stormed the local headquarters of Force 17, which is loyal to Fatah, and abducted six of its members, residents said.

Fatah officials blamed Hamas for the assault. Hamas declined to say whether it was holding the men but accused Force 17 of setting up a checkpoint in Beit Hanoun and trying to detain Hamas members.

While both sides had released some hostages taken during the fighting, officials said before the Force 17 incident that Hamas still held nine Fatah men while 32 members of Hamas remained in Fatah custody.

Failure to clinch an agreement in Mecca appeared certain to trigger more fighting on Gaza’s still tense streets.

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