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Middle East

Hamas, Fatah agree on prisoner release

Latest update : 2009-02-26

Rival Palestinian movements Fatah and Hamas agreed late Wednesday to resolve the fate of prisoners held by both sides and stop their media war on the eve of Egypt-brokered reconciliation talks.

AFP - Rival Palestinian movements Fatah and Hamas agreed late Wednesday to resolve the fate of prisoners held by both sides and stop their media war on the eve of Egypt-brokered reconciliation talks.

The accord came as the feuding movements held talks aimed at paving the way for a unity government ahead of Thursday's start of dialogue between Fatah, the secular movement headed by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, and the Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip.

The two sides reached an agreement on resolving the prisoners issue "in a timeline not going beyond the end of the inter-Palestinian dialogue meetings," the two sides said in a joint statement.

"A certain number of detainees will be freed right at the beginning of the dialogue," said the statement from Azzam al-Ahmad, leader of the Fatah bloc in the Palestinian parliament, and senior Hamas official Mahmud Zahar.

"Other detainees will be freed successively so that this issue will be totally closed before the end of the national Palestinian dialogue," it said.

Zahar said 80 Hamas members held in the West Bank, which is controlled by the moderate Fatah movement, have been released and that 300 are still being held.

For its part, the Islamist movement Hamas has lifted the house arrest of a number of Fatah members in the Gaza Strip.

The two factions have long been rivals but their feuding boiled over in June 2007 when Hamas seized control of Gaza, routing forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas after days of deadly street battles.

Egypt had originally called for Palestinian reconciliation talks in November, but Hamas withdrew at the last minute, complaining that Fatah was continuing to arrest Hamas members in the West Bank.

The reconciliation process was relaunched by Egypt after Israel's 22-day war on Hamas last month.

"The climate is positive and promising," Hamas political bureau member Ezzat Resheq told journalists after Wednesday's talks. "We hope for positive results."

Ahmad cited a "real desire on both sides to settle these questions... to achieve reconciliation, a urgent necessity above all because the (Israel-Palestinian) peace process is not progressing and nor are efforts towards a truce."

The stakes are high for Thursday's negotiations as billions of dollars of funds to rebuild the Gaza Strip may be available if terms set by international donors can be met before an aid meeting next week in Egypt.

Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian general election but its government was boycotted by Israel and the West, and attempts at a national unity government failed.

Thursday's conference, which will also bring in other Palestinian factions, stems from Egyptian proposals for a lasting ceasefire following Israel's onslaught on Gaza from December 27 to January 18, in which more than 1,300 people were killed and buildings and infrastructure destroyed.

Cross-border violence has continued since then in the absence of a full ceasefire.

On Wednesday Israeli warplanes launched air strikes along Gaza's border with Egypt as delegates from three Palestinian factions were crossing at a nearby terminal, witnesses said, after rockets were fired from the territory.

Fawzi Barhum, Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said the preparatory meetings were to try to "overcome the hurdles to dialogue, especially on political detainees and media campaigns, in order to ensure the success of the dialogue."

However, the many continuing disagreements between Hamas and Fatah mean it is still far from certain the Cairo conference will succeed.

On a visit to Cairo on the eve of the talks, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called for the Palestinians to form a new government of "technocrats" to oversee reconstruction of the economy and the political process in readiness for elections.

Sweden also expressed support for Palestinian reconciliation.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said his country, which takes over the rotating EU presidency on July 1, wants to help politically in the process of possibly holding new elections in the Palestinian territories.

"Reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is also a part of the process," he said in Stockholm after meeting Abbas.

Date created : 2009-02-26