Fatah and Hamas set date for talks

Fatah and Hamas will meet in Cairo for Egyptian-mediated talks aimed at forming a transitional government.

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Fatah and Hamas will meet in Cairo on October 25 for Egyptian-mediated talks aimed at forming a Palestinian transitional government acceptable to the rival factions, Hamas said today. "Fatah and Hamas will meet on October 25 in Cairo under Egyptian mediation to resolve their differences on how to reach reconciliation and end the current Palestinian divisions," said the senior Hamas official Mahmoud al Zahar.

Mr Zahar was speaking after talks yesterday with the Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, the latest in a series of such meetings with a dozen Palestinian factions, including the secular Fatah party of president Mahmoud Abbas. Egypt has been acting as a mediator between Fatah and Hamas after the Islamist party, which won a majority in parliamentary elections in 2006, seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, routing forces loyal to Fatah.

The Egyptian proposal includes a transitional government made up of ministers acceptable to all factions and a restructuring of Palestinian security forces with Arab oversight. The proposal also provides for new parliamentary and presidential elections. Hamas has said it will not recognise the Palestinian Authority president (Mr Abbas) after his mandate ends in January. But yesterday, the Hamas official Khalil al Haya said the Islamist party would be willing to place "elections on the table for negotiation".

"We have reached an agreement in principle with Egyptian officials on the matters that need to be resolved during the meeting," said Mr Zahar, widely considered the most influential leader in Gaza. "These matters include forming a government of national consensus [and] the reorganisation of Palestinian security forces, with the help of Arab experts who will be charged with training [the security forces] and co-ordination.

He said that Hamas preferred what he called a government of national consensus. "We agreed on a government of national consensus, meaning factions will be represented but (the government) will also include independents and professionals." The October 25 meeting will be followed by a meeting of all 13 Palestinian factions in Cairo after which the process of forming a government and reforming the security services will last "six to nine months", Mr Zahar said.

He refused to say when legislative and presidential elections might be held. "The essential is to return to the situation of political and geographical unity of before (June 2007)," he said. Salam Fayyad, a politically independent former World Bank economist who was appointed prime minister by Abbas after the Gaza takeover, has called for a "non-factional" transition government. Such a solution would help the international community, which shuns Hamas, to deal with the transitional unity government until new elections are held, Mr Fayyad said.

Israel, which regards Hamas as a terrorist group, responded to Hamas's win in the elections with sanctions, and almost completely blockaded the impoverished coastal strip after Hamas seized power in 2007. Fatah continues to administer the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Egypt, which occasionally opens its Rafah border crossing with Gaza, hopes its proposal will ease the blockade of Gaza, which human rights groups say is undergoing a humanitarian crisis because of the blockade.

The Middle East peace Quartet envoy Tony Blair met the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Cairo to discuss efforts to revive the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and improve Palestinians' living conditions, the official Mena news agency said. The peace process was formally revived a year ago under the auspices of the Quartet, which groups the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States, although little visible progress has been made.