Abbas confronts Hamas after rocket attacks threaten truce with Israel

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The Independent Online

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, last night confronted Hamas with a demand to observe a strict ceasefire with Israel after the rocket and mortar attacks which threatened the truce he and the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared this week.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, last night confronted Hamas with a demand to observe a strict ceasefire with Israel after the rocket and mortar attacks which threatened the truce he and the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared this week.

Mr Abbas warned Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders at face to face meetings here that he had a clear popular mandate from last month's presidential election to halt the violence, and that a continued ceasefire offered the best chance for Palestinian advances - including over the key issue of prisoner releases.

In a move which came as a boost to Mr Abbas ahead of last night's crucial talks, Israel agreed to the return of 56 militants deported from the West Bank, including 39 exiled under the deal which ended the Church of the Nativity siege in Bethlehem in May 2002. Twenty-six of the fugitives who had taken refuge in the Church were sent to Gaza and another 13 to Europe.

Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Mr Sharon, confirmed the agreement - under which a further 17 West Bank militants deported to Gaza during the last four and a half years of conflict would also be allowed to go home - but said no timetable had yet been fixed for its implementation. "We promise that they won't be arrested upon their return," he added. "We are freezing all proceedings against them as long as they refrain from terror activities."

The urgency of Mr Abbas's meeting with Hamas was reinforced on Thursday when the faction claimed responsibility for over 40 attacks on Gush Katif, Gaza's main settlement bloc, saying they had been mounted in retaliation for the fatal shooting of two Palestinians by Israeli troops in Gaza and the West Bank. Mr Abbas, who deployed Palestinian forces in Gaza three weeks ago to help maintain the then undeclared ceasefire, reacted within hours of the attacks by sacking three senior Palestinian security chiefs.

Ziad Abu Amr, Mr Abbas's chief negotiator with the factions, said before last night's talks that he was optimistic that Hamas would agree to abide by a ceasefire. He suggested that the Hamas attacks had been launched partly as a reminder of their demands - including for the rapid release of prisoners-in the wake of last week's Sharm el-Sheikh summit. Mr Abbas used last night's meeting to outline the gains he believes he made at the summit, in which Mr Sharon promised to cease military activity against Palestinians.

Dr Abu Amr made it clear that Mr Abbas was planning to secure an agreement which would not require the use of force against the militant factions. He added that Mr Abbas wanted both sides to avoid retaliations which would allow isolated incidents to escalate into resumed conflict. "We have to convince Hamas to show restraint in the face of provocations by Israel. But Israel also bears a responsibility to honour the agreement in Sharm el-Sheikh"

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhari, said the organisation was interested in a ceasefire, but added that it was conditional on a cessation of all Israeli military activity against its members.

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