Hamas pulls out of talks on ceasefire with Israel

Hamas, the most powerful of the Palestinian militant groups, announced yesterday that it was walking out of talks with Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Prime Minister, on a temporary ceasefire. The announcement throws into doubt the tentative steps towards peace made in Aqaba earlier this week by Abu Mazen and Ariel Sharon, his Israeli counterpart.

In a rare public statement, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, said: "We have stopped the dialogue with the Palestinian Authority. This is our choice and we have no alternative. Resistance will continue."

Thousands of Hamas supporters marched in the West Bank, vowing to continue the suicide bombings. The group said that it would also try to persuade Islamic Jihad, a militant group with which it has links, to refuse a ceasefire.

This puts Abu Mazen in a dilemma. At Aqaba in Jordan, he pledged to end suicide bombings and other militant attacks against Israelis, and to disarm the militants. But he was relying on persuading Hamas and the other militant factions to agree to a temporary ceasefire; he had already had contacts with the Hamas leadership, which had indicated it would be amenable.

Without one, Abu Mazen faces a choice between failing to fulfil his pledge at Aqaba - which would probably mean the peace process would collapse again - and taking on the militants by force, which would mean internal conflict that some Palestinians fear could lead to civil war. Palestinian commentators were hopeful yesterday that a confrontation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) could be avoided. Hamas is a radical Islamic group, but it has a history of pragmatism and its leaders are as eager as Abu Mazen to avoid a head-on collision with PA security forces.

Hamas leaders said the talks had been broken off because Abu Mazen had given too much ground. Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, a senior leader of Hamas' political wing, said: "We were shocked when we saw Abu Mazen and his new government giving up all the Palestinians' rights.

"Abu Mazen, through giving up the right of resistance and calling it terrorism, gave the green light to Sharon and his army." There is also believed to be disappointment among militants that Abu Mazen said nothing on the right of return for Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced out of what is now Israel, in 1948.

But Mr Rantisi and Sheikh Yassin also pointed to the killing of two Hamas militants by Israeli soldiers in a raid in the West Bank on Thursday. The Israeli army claimed the soldiers killed the men only after they refused to surrender; Hamas claimed the men were assassinated. Israel has a stated policy of assassinating militants but has been accused of timing assassinations to undermine efforts to secure a ceasefire.

Hamas is the most powerful of the militant factions and a ceasefire without it will not work. Its heartland is the Gaza Strip, but Abu Mazen's security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, is also based there.

Mr Dahlan is planning to disarm the factions by buying weapons from individual militants, according to reports that quoted unnamed Palestinian officials yesterday. He is also said to have been receiving money from the United States and Europe to do so. American and British officials did not comment.

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