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Abbas calls for 'serious' negotiations with Israel

EGYPT: Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas called Monday on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to start "serious" peace negotiations.

"I invite you to start serious political negotiations according to an agreed calendar, with the aim of establishing an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, existing alongside Israel," Abbas said during a Middle East summit in Egypt.

He appealed to Olmert not to pass up "this historic opportunity" to make peace with the Palestinians.

Meanwhile Olmert told the Middle East summit in Egypt on Monday he was ready to free 250 Fatah prisoners in a gesture of goodwill to Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas.

Olmert stressed he was seeking reconciliation with moderate Palestinians at the four-way talks in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, called in a bid to to boost Abbas after his rivals Hamas violently seized control of Gaza 10 days ago.

"It is important for every Palestinian to understand that we are extending a hand to those who are willing to have peace and reconciliation with us," Olmert told Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II.

"There is no other solution than two states living in peace and security."

He said he would ask his cabinet to approve the release of 250 members of Abbas's secular Fatah movement "without blood on their hands" but stressed that those prisoners must commit to renounce "terrorism."

The limited gesture was one of the few tangible results of the summit, which few in any case had expected would make much headway in reviving stalled peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Mubarak, however, hailed the summit as the "start of serious consultations on the promotion of an appropriate atmosphere to revive the peace process."

"I was pleased by the concurrence of our views expressed in bilateral and wider meetings on the need for serious efforts ... to break the current freeze in the peace process and to drive it forward," he said.

Abbas and Olmert held talks in Sharm el-Sheikh ahead of the summit, their first meeting since April 15 after a planned encounter in early June was cancelled.

An Israeli embassy official said atmosphere at the talks had been "very good."

But while much of the summit focused on boosting Abbas and the Western-backed emergency government he set up in the West bank after the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Mubarak called for an end to the rift between Hamas and Fatah.

"Our deliberations today affirmed the parallel need to end disagreements, and unify the Palestinian ranks through dialogue," the Egyptian leader said.

"The resumption of dialogue between all the children of Palestine, and the achievement of a common position that speaks for its people and its cause, is an immediate requirement that can bear no delay," he added.

Sacked Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya quickly responded positively to the suggestion.

"Prime Minister Ismail Haniya favourably received the appeal launched by President (Hosni) Mubarak at Sharm el-Sheikh in favour of a revival of inter-Palestinian dialogue," Haniya's office said in a statement.

"Hamas for its part is disposed to immediately take up this dialogue" with Fatah, it said.

Meanwhile Osama bin Laden's right-hand man Ayman al-Zawahiri voiced backing for Hamas in an Internet tape on Monday and warned against any offensive to wrest control of Gaza from the Islamist movement.

In the audio message, Al-Qaeda's number two charged that Egypt and Saudi Arabia were planning to join an "offensive" against Hamas, which seized Gaza 10 days ago from the secular Fatah party of president Mahmud Abbas.

And in a dramatic change of tone, Zawawhiri urged Muslim fighters to back Hamas with funds and weapons, saying it was a "religious duty."

Sharm El- Sheikh, Dubai, Tuesday, AFP.

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