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Mon 26 Jan 2009 01:47 AM

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Hamas in discussions about lasting truce with Israel

Hamas officials meet with Egypt's intelligence chief to discuss truce with Israel.

A Hamas team met Egypt's intelligence chief Omar Suleiman on Sunday in a bid to clinch a lasting truce in the war-battered Gaza Strip, days after an Israeli negotiator held similar talks in Cairo.

But even as Egypt pushed on with its diplomatic drive, Hamas vowed to keep arming Gaza militants and an Israeli official warned that a Hamas leader will be unable to move freely if an Israeli soldier is not freed.

Egypt closed its Rafah crossing point with Gaza for fear that Israel might renew its attacks on the smuggling tunnels that criss-cross the border, security officials said.

Egypt's state MENA news agency said Suleiman and the Hamas officials discussed "Egyptian efforts to consolidate the ceasefire, reach a (permanent) truce, reopen Gaza crossings and resume Palestinian national dialogue."

Hamas and Egyptian officials were tight-lipped about the talks, held behind closed doors and attended by members of the group's powerful Syria-based politburo and a delegation from Gaza.

A Hamas spokesman in Damascus however reiterated that the Islamist group was willing to observe a "one-year truce" with Israel "on condition" that the Gaza blockade is lifted.

Suleiman, Egypt's pointman for Palestinian-Israeli affairs, met separately with Hamas and Israeli officials during the 22-day assault to push for acceptance of an Egyptian plan to end the onslaught.

On Thursday, he met Amos Gilad, who last year was Israel's negotiator in talks that led to a six-month Egyptian-brokered truce with Hamas that expired on December 19.

As the Cairo talks began, Hamas's Lebanon representative Ossama Hamdan vowed the group would continue to arm.

"Warplanes, aircraft carriers and satellite technology will not be able to monitor the entry of weapons through Gaza's tunnels," he told a Beirut rally.

"Things might get difficult, but we will do whatever it takes to continue our resistance against Israel."

Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on December 27 to halt rocket attacks from Gaza and stop arms trafficking from Egypt, and has warned it will strike again if Hamas is allowed to rearm.

Hamas has also threatened to resume fighting if Israel does not reopen the crossings into Gaza, where 1,330 Palestinians were killed during the onslaught, almost a third of them children. Thirteen Israelis were also killed.

Israel imposed a crippling blockade after the Islamists took control of Gaza in a bloody showdown with the Fatah followers of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in June 2007.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak proposed on January 6 a three-point ceasefire plan, including terms to end smuggling across the Egypt-Gaza border.

Egypt insists that only contraband goods are trafficked through the tunnels while weapons are delivered to Gaza by sea.

Israel believes otherwise and has boosted pressure on Egypt to stem the flow of weapons.

"Israel considers that Egypt is in a position to confront the matter of arms smuggling and to put an end to it," Gilad said on Saturday.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak is to hold talks with newly appointed US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell on Wednesday before heading to Washington for talks with members of the new administration on implementing a January 16 agreement on stemming the arms trafficking.

A US embassy military attache in Cairo toured the Gaza border area on Sunday on what an embassy official insisted was "regular, routine and previously scheduled" visit.

EU foreign ministers called on Sunday for divided Palestinian factions to unite so Gaza border crossings can be opened to aid. At talks in Brussels, they also urged Arab nations to use their influence with Hamas and Fatah.

"The reunification of the Palestinian people with a single voice to speak to them, to speak for the West Bank and for Gaza is absolutely essential," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters.

On Wednesday, the Europeans met separately with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Egypt is also seeking to end the protracted Hamas-Fatah feud, which sharpened after the Islamists seized Gaza 18 months ago. Palestinian faction leaders were gathering in Cairo ahead of reconciliation talks later this week.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana is expected in the Middle East on Monday for a four-nation trip aimed at helping bolster the Gaza ceasefire, his spokeswoman said.

"It will probably start tomorrow (Monday) afternoon and run until about Thursday," she said.

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