Hamas leader returns in triumph to Gaza

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SHEIKH YASSIN, leader of Hamas, the militant Islamic movement, was expected to return to Gaza yesterday after a four-month tour of Arab and Islamic countries, during which he has collected a reputed $50m (pounds 31m) and established himself as the pre- eminent Palestinian leader after Yasser Arafat.

The controversy, which has delayed Sheikh Yassin's return since 4 June, underlines his growing influence. Egypt has been reluctant to allow him to enter the country in case Israel stops him returning to Gaza through the Rafah border crossing. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said that Israel preferred to have the Hamas leader in Gaza than free to roam the Arab world.

Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA) has been alarmed by the welcome the sheikh has received during his trip. He was seen by King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah in Saudi Arabia as well as leaders in Tehran, Damascus and Khartoum. Efforts by the PA to ensure that he received a more muted welcome have been largely ineffectual.

On returning to Gaza the Hamas leader is likely to use his increased prestige to demand the release of Hamas prisoners held by the PA, the reopening of Islamic institutions and no pursuit of Hamas members sought by Israel.

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