PLO chief pleads with Fatah factions to end in-fighting

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The new chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Abu Mazen, last night appealed to Gaza's rival factions to unite behind the task of arranging orderly elections 24 hours after a shooting which claimed two lives including one of his own bodyguards.

The former Prime Minister, still seen as the likely successor to Yasser Arafat as Palestinian president, met a wide range of organisations including his own conflict-riven Fatah group, which is due to decide shortly whether to back him as its candidate for the presidential election promised for 9 January.

His appeal followed Sunday night's shootout during a ceremony in a mourning tent, which exposed some of therivalries within Fatah. The exact details were still disputed last night, but the incident is said by local analysts to have thrown a harsh spotlight on the hostility to Abu Mazen's candidacy among political figures who fear their power could decline without Mr Arafat's patronage.

The meeting came as Sylvan Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister touring the US, said publicly for the first time that if the new Palestinian leadership "fights against terrorism," Israel will agree to negotiations over co-ordinated implementation of the disengagement plan.

Meanwhile Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, yesterday told the BBC that if Palestinians and Israelis adhered to the internationally agreed "road-map" there was still time for a Palestinian state to be created by the end of 2005. But he added: "I doubt if Mr Sharon has the political will."

Despite a concerted effort by Abu Mazen and the prominent local Fatah leader, Mohammed Dahlan, who was with him at the time, to play down the significance of Sunday's shooting, Mahmoud Ajrawi, a PLO veteran in Gaza said: "This reflects the current absence of stability and of law, of control. The factions within Fatah are in a power struggle. What happened yesterday is a big issue."

Fatah supporters of Abu Mazen's candidacy said before last night's meeting that its atmosphere may be helped by the Sunday's shooting as many of the factions would recoil from seeing a repeat of the violence.

Jamal Abu Habil, a member of Fatah's regional council, said: "People will say that this was a frightening scene, and that will have a political impact on what I believe will be a very positive meeting." Mr Habil added that the transitional leadership under Abu Mazen and Ahmed Qureia "needs to be strong. They need to work very forcefully against anyone who works against the law".

Mr Habil said that he had been inside the mourning tent on Sunday, close to the door when he heard shooting outside as Abu Mazen and his security men arrived at the same time as a separate group led by Ahmed Hilles, Fatah's secretary general in Gaza. He had heard shooting outside the tent and saw security men guarding Abu Mazen gather at the entrance to stop other armed men entering. He heard one shout "No to Abu Mazen, No to Dahlan".

He left the tent to see what was happening and while he was outside one of Abu Mazen's guards was shot two metres from where he had been sitting.

He vehemently denied suggestions that the man had been shot - even accidentally - by one of Mr Dahlan's own security men and added that Mr Dahlan was vital to shoring up support for Abu Mazen, with whom he has so far allied himself. The former Prime Minister "needs Dahlan," he added.

Fatah supporters of Mr Dahlan, an ambitious member of the younger Fatah generation, were predictably dismissive of any claims to the presidency by the imprisoned Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, who nevertheless enjoys strong support among younger activists in the West Bank.

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