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Kidnapped Fatah official released unharmed

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Monday he is pushing ahead with early elections — despite factional fighting that intensified after his initial call for a poll — and appealed for international help in restarting peace talks with Israel.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Monday he is pushing ahead with early elections — despite factional fighting that intensified after his initial call for a poll — and appealed for international help in restarting peace talks with Israel.

In the Gaza Strip, where the Palestinian infighting has been concentrated, there was a relative lull after the sides declared a truce late Sunday. By Monday evening, the tensions threatened to explode anew after a Fatah supporter was killed in a gunfight and a senior Fatah official was briefly seized by Hamas militants.

Abbas said he is ready to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert anytime. “We need each other,” he said, adopting an unusually warm tone. The Palestinian leader hopes a peace breakthrough with Israel can persuade his people to support him in a showdown with Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls parliament and the Cabinet.

Abbas said Saturday he is seeking new presidential and parliamentary elections to end months of deadlock with Hamas, whose refusal to moderate has isolated the Palestinians internationally and driven them deeper into an economic crisis.

Hamas has accused Abbas of trying to illegally topple its government, and fighting between Hamas and Abbas-allied security forces in Gaza worsened after Abbas’ announcement. Abbas spoke at a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who urged the international community to rally behind the Palestinian leader.

Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said Abbas’ insistence on elections amounted to a “coup against sovereignty and democracy.” Hamas’ position won some support from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who criticized many in the international community for refusing to respect “the will of the Palestinian people” following Hamas’ victory in January parliamentary elections and following through with economic help.

Although the week-old wave of violence in Gaza appeared to be diminishing Monday after warring Palestinian groups said they had negotiated a truce, sporadic violence continued into the evening, and a Fatah supporter was killed in the northern Gaza town of Jebaliya.

Dr. Said Judeh of Kamal Radwan Hospital said the man died in a standoff between Hamas and Fatah militants, and that five others were wounded in clashes in the same area. Masked gunmen from both sides deployed around Jebaliya after the man’s death, checking cars and taking up firing positions.

Despite the violence — including multiple kidnappings — both sides said they would honor the cease-fire. “We are trying to halt all breeches,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

In the most brazen abduction, Sufian Abu Zaydeh, a former Cabinet minister and top Fatah official in Gaza, was seized by Hamas militants as he was driving alone to his home late Monday in northern Gaza. Abu Zaydeh was released unharmed less than an hour later.

In a statement from Hamas’ headquarters in Syria, the group said its exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal, spoke to several regional leaders and key mediators — including Qatar’s emir and Egypt’s intelligence chief — to discuss “how to contain the current tension in the Palestinian area.”

Tensions between Hamas, which now controls the Palestinian parliament, and Fatah, which controls the presidency, have been high since talks on forming a coalition government broke down in late November.

The fighting spiraled out of control after unknown gunmen killed the three young sons of a Fatah-allied security chief last week. Since then, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and the foreign minister’s convoy were targeted in separate incidents and mortar shells were launched at Abbas’ Gaza office.

Late Sunday, the bullet-riddled body of a top security officer affiliated with Fatah, Col. Adnan Rahmi, was discovered in northern Gaza hours after he disappeared, Palestinian medical officials and his family said. No group took responsibility, but Rahmi’s family blamed Hamas for the killing.

In his joint news conference with Blair, Abbas said the violence would not deter him from going ahead with elections. “It is clear that we are going for early presidential and legislative elections,” he said. “Nothing stands against that. We are a democratic people, so let’s go to the people.”

Abbas, 71, also hinted he might seek re-election, after having told aides repeatedly he would not. He was elected president in 2005 and Hamas won a separate parliament vote a year later. “We want to examine the will of the people. Do they still trust those they have chosen?” Abbas said.

A poll published Sunday indicated Abbas was in a tie with Haniyeh, the most popular Hamas politician.

Abbas said he talked with Blair about the “need to intensify Arab and international efforts” to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Blair was effusive in his praise of Abbas. “I believe what is important following your speech is that the international community mobilize its efforts to support you in your office,” he said.

But Erdogan, the Turkish leader, speaking at the United Nations, criticized the decision to call early elections, saying “it’s very negative in that sense because Abbas and Haniyeh had taken some positive steps and had begun to work together in trying to take positive steps.”