Palestinian militants call for ceasefire

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The Independent Online

Support for a hudna, or temporary ceasefire, in the Palestinian uprising against Israel has been growing among activists held in Israeli prisons, boosting the "roadmap" peace negotiations ahead of this week's summit with President George Bush.

Imprisoned Hamas activists have called on leaders of their movement to reach an agreement with the Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, on a halt to suicide bombings and other attacks. Members of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement in prison say they have managed to reach an understanding with most leaders of the Islamic groups that have carried out suicide bombings.

According to prisoners interviewed by The Independent on Sunday, Mr Abbas or his aides have contacted Fatah leaders in several jails, promising that the Palestinian Authority is giving top priority to prisoner releases in its talks with the Israeli government. The Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has offered to release about 100 Palestinians held in "administrative detention", which would help Mr Abbas gain public support as he seeks a ceasefire deal.

In a joint statement, Fatah and Hamas leaders in Asqalan prison said they were willing to give Mr Abbas's government "a chance" for political dialogue. The most radical group, Islamic Jihad, made a joint statement with Fatah backing a "comprehensive dialogue" with the PA to put "an end to the Sharon government's aggression".

Neither statement mentioned a ceasefire, but Nidal al-Kawasm, a Hamas activist in Ofer prison in the West Bank, said by telephone: "Hamas does not want to be blamed for aborting the road-map, which gives some hope to the Palestinian people."

Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the Hamas spokesman, said the movement had not finalised its stance on a hudna. "We are still discussing it with the representatives of Hamas abroad and in the West Bank," he said. Hamas's official position, he repeated, was that "if Israel stops killing civilians, we are going to stop killing civilians. This position is not new."

Israel's right-wingers say talk of a ceasefire is a tactical move to enable the terror groups to reorganise after batterings by the army and intelligence services. In his meeting with Mr Sharon, Mr Abbas pledged not only to achieve a ceasefire, but also to fight terror, winning praise yesterday from Mr Bush, who will meet both men in Jordan on Wednesday. Israeli officials say they expect "a 100 per cent" effort by the PA against the Palestinian groups.

There are 5,800 detainees in 11 Israeli jails and seven army lock-ups, held since the start of the uprising 32 months ago. More than 1,000 are being held administratively without trial. According to Israeli sources, some had been planning suicide attacks.