|Abbas insists will hold elections, truce threatened|
Mon Dec 18, 2006 10:01 AM ET
By Wafa Amr and Katherine Baldwin
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Monday he would press on with early elections as a truce between his security forces and the Hamas government threatened to unravel in the Gaza Strip.
Interior Ministry police briefly exchanged fire with Abbas's presidential guard near the Foreign Ministry.
Tension also rose in northern Gaza when gunbattles erupted after two gunmen, one from Hamas and the other from Abbas's Fatah, were abducted. The two sides blamed each other.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking after meeting Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said the international community should try to put together in the coming weeks a package of assistance to help the moderate leader.
Internal fighting, already at its worst level in years, escalated after Abbas called on Saturday for fresh elections, a move intended to break a political deadlock with the Hamas Islamists and get Western sanctions on their government lifted.
A truce deal was struck late on Sunday but already looks like it could collapse.
"As I told you in my speech, I am determined to go back to the people," Abbas said in a joint news conference with Blair.
"We have been in a crisis for nine months. People cannot wait for long. People are suffering from the economic social and security situation."
Abbas insisted his Fatah movement was still open to the formation of a unity government of technocrats, saying in prepared remarks that this was the "best way forward".
The West has sought to bolster Abbas, who favors a two-state solution to end conflict with Israel.
The Hamas Islamists seek the Jewish state's destruction and have struggled to govern since taking office in March under the weight of Western sanctions that were imposed because of their refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence.
PLEA FROM BLAIR
Blair said the package of assistance, to go through Abbas's office, would include reconstruction and development aid. He did not give details.
"If the international community really means what it says about supporting people who share the vision of a two-state solution ... then now is the time for the international community to respond," Blair said.
"I believe this is so critical and urgent over the coming weeks."
Blair, on a drive to revive Middle East peace negotiations, will hold talks later with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum accused Blair of "inflaming the political situation" by overtly supporting Abbas.
Hamas, which surprised the once dominant Fatah to win elections in January, has said it would boycott new polls.
"Such a move would cast doubt on the entire legality of the Palestinian governmental system," the movement's supreme leader Khaled Meshaal, who lives in exile in Damascus, told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera in an interview.
"If civil war were really to erupt, it would not be our fault. Hamas will do all it can to avoid it."
Officials from Hamas and Fatah were expected to meet on Monday night to try to cement the Gaza ceasefire.
Abbas and senior Hamas leaders all called for calm. But their appeals appeared to be falling on deaf ears.
In other violence, Palestinian medics and security sources said a school student had been wounded in a brief gunfight between members of Hamas and Fatah, while unknown gunmen earlier abducted a Fatah loyalist in Gaza City.
Hamas and Fatah tried for months to form a unity government to end their power struggle, but the talks foundered, partly over Hamas's insistence on not recognizing Israel.
However, Abbas's election call could rebound on Fatah as the faction has done little to improve its standing and unite after being trounced by Hamas in January, analysts and officials said.
Despite a drop in Hamas's popularity in recent polls amid an economic crisis and worsening law and order, Fatah risked losing the presidency and parliament to Hamas -- assuming the movement took part -- without serious reforms, the sources said.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Mohammed Assadi in Jerusalem and Stephen Brown in Rome)
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