Monday, December 18, 2006

Abbas insists will hold elections

By Wafa Amr and Katherine Baldwin

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas vowed on Monday to press on with early elections as a truce between his security forces and the Hamas government threatened to unravel in the Gaza Strip.

Gunmen killed an activist from Abbas's Fatah faction and wounded eight others in north Gaza, Fatah sources and a hospital official said. Fatah blamed the attack in the Jabalya refugee camp on Hamas. The Islamists were not available to comment.

Separate gun battles erupted after Hamas and Fatah traded blame over the abduction of at least three gunmen.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking after meeting Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said the international community should try to put together in the coming weeks a package of assistance to help the moderate leader.

Internal fighting, already at its worst level in a decade, escalated after Abbas called on Saturday for fresh elections, a move intended to break a political deadlock with Hamas and get Western sanctions on their government lifted.

A truce deal was struck late on Sunday but already looks as though it could collapse.

"As I told you in my speech, I am determined to go back to the people," Abbas said in a joint news conference with Blair.

"We have been in a crisis for nine months. People cannot wait for long. People are suffering from the economic, social and security situation."

Abbas insisted his Fatah movement was still open to the formation of a unity government of technocrats.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas reiterated his movement's opposition to fresh elections. Hamas surprised the once-dominant Fatah to win polls in January.

Haniyeh also urged Abbas to withdraw his forces from Gaza's streets, saying their deployment was threatening the truce.

Abbas's presidential guard overran two Hamas-led ministries on Sunday and have also taken up positions around Abbas's compound and residence in Gaza.

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