Abbas promises to lead Palestine to statehood

Cloaking himself in Yasser Arafat's legacy, the interim Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, yesterday launched his campaign for next month's presidential election with a pledge to fulfil Palestinian dreams of statehood.

Six other candidates also entered the race for the 9 January poll, all seeking to play up their links with the late Palestinian president. One even donned Arafat's trademark black-and-white Arab headdress and started his campaign at Arafat's graveside.

Mr Abbas, the front-runner, called on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, telling a cheering crowd of several hundred supporters in Ramallah: "Israel must pull out of all Palestinian lands occupied in 1967. We must end the occupation. We cannot compromise on Jerusalem."

He added: "We are choosing the path of peace and negotiation." But peace was conditional on Israel freeing all Palestinian prisoners, especially the jailed intifada leader Marwan Barghouti, who dropped plans to run for the presidency himself under pressure from members of the ruling Fatah party.

Israel has promised to do all it can to ensure the election goes smoothly. Israel Radio said the cabinet was expected to agree measures today to assist. The Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has called 2005 a year of opportunity for peace and offered to co-ordinate with the Palestinians his plan to give up territory, but has emphasised that Palestinian attacks must stop before there can be meaningful talks.

One sign of change appeared in Bethlehem, where Israel let Mr Abbas and other Palestinian leaders go to the town for midnight mass on Christmas Eve. For the previous three years it had prevented Arafat from attending.

But preliminary results of partial Palestinian municipal elections, held on Thursday for the first time in nearly 30 years, demonstrated a strong showing for the militant Hamas grouping, which has sworn to destroy Israel.