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Abbas warns of al Qaeda influence

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2007

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has accused Gaza"s Hamas rulers of allowing al Qaeda to infiltrate the coastal strip, a charge denied by the militants.

In an interview Monday with Italy"s Rai TV, Mr. Abbas said, "Thanks to the support of Hamas, al Qaeda is entering Gaza."

Mr. Abbas, who met with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi yesterday, did not offer evidence to support his charges.

Mr. Abbas renewed a request to deploy an international force in Gaza, widely seen as a nonstarter because of the many complications of sending forces to such a volatile area.

In a joint press conference, Mr. Prodi suggested that the time was not ripe for such a deployment.

Deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas rejected international forces.

"We consider any international presence in Gaza a type of external aggression against the Palestinian people and the Palestinian issue and unwanted interference in internal Palestinian affairs," he said.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri accused Mr. Abbas of trying to whip up sentiment against Hamas, which vanquished the president"s forces in Gaza last month and unseated his Fatah political party in the 2006 parliamentary elections.

Mr. Abbas did not explain whether he meant that al Qaeda members from abroad have entered Gaza or that local militant groups are taking inspiration from the international terror network.

The Army of Islam, which last week freed British Broadcasting Corp. correspondent Alan Johnston after nearly four months, claims links to al Qaeda.

Mr. Prodi expressed support for Mr. Abbas and said Italy is prepared to funnel more aid to the Palestinians.

"This is the time to give Palestinians hope," he added. "We don"t think humanitarian support is enough."

Mr. Abbas reiterated that he would engage in dialogue with Hamas only if the militants reversed the violent takeover of Gaza and apologized to the Palestinian people. Hamas is unlikely to meet such demands.

Hamas leaders, fearful of deepening the group"s international isolation, suggested after seizing Gaza that they would steer clear of al Qaeda, in line with the movement"s position to focus on the conflict with Israel.