With Gaza lost, Abbas wins international support

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

MIDDLE EAST - Western powers rallied behind Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today after Hamas Islamists routed his forces in the Gaza Strip and began imposing a new order in the enclave after days of bloody civil war.

Despite his mandate effectively being reduced to the West Bank, Abbas named a new prime minister after firing the Hamas-led government and declaring a state of emergency.

The United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia -- the Quartet of Middle East mediators -- gave a "clear message of support" to Abbas.

Washington, Europe and Israel prepared to throw open the taps on financial aid to Abbas that was cut off a year ago when Iranian-backed Hamas used its popularity in impoverished Gaza to defeat Abbas's more secular Fatah in a parliamentary election.

Abbas named Salam Fayyad, a technocrat who won respect in the West as finance minister, to replace Ismail Haniyeh as prime minister, three months after Hamas brought Fatah members into a "unity" government.

But in Gaza, all but divorced now from the larger West Bank in a blow to Palestinians' hopes for a united state, Hamas leader Haniyeh refused to accept his dismissal.

He set about restoring order after six days of battles that ended in revenge killings and looting at Abbas's compound.

In the West Bank, Fatah militants torched Hamas offices and warned of more reprisals if comrades were harmed in Gaza.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and EU officials held an hour-long teleconference.

"There was a clear message of support to President Abbas especially in this difficult time of forming an emergency government," an EU spokeswoman said in Brussels.

A senior Israeli official expected US efforts to "throw full-fledged support behind (Abbas) and build him up in the West Bank". Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said: "We are going to keep this strategy of a dialogue with the moderates and to send some hope for those who support their vision."

RESTRAINT

While some Islamists heaped scorn on Abbas, others were more conciliatory. Some of the 4 million Palestinians, divided by 45 km (30 miles) of Israel, worried that schism would wreck their hopes of founding a state and ending international isolation.

Anxious to demonstrate a statesmanlike authority, Haniyeh took a conciliatory tone after violence that killed well over 100 people. The body of at least one "executed" Fatah militant leader was dragged through the streets on Thursday.

"I demand that all our people show calm and self-restraint," he said after freeing Fatah chiefs accused of plotting a coup.

Hamas said it was in advanced negotiations on the release of Alan Johnston, a British reporter whose March 12 abduction prompted a flight of foreign press from Gaza. A little-known group, Army of Islam, has said it is holding the BBC's Johnston.

Haniyeh said foreign powers should respect the result of last year's parliamentary election. "No internal formula in the Palestinian territories will hold without national agreement and without respecting the legitimacy of the election," he said.

Haniyeh ally Khalil al-Hayya appealed to Abbas: "We hope you remain president of all the Palestinian people ... We will never accept the separation of Gaza from the West Bank."

Borders with Israel and Egypt along the 40-km (25-mile) strip of coast remained effectively sealed although dozens of Fatah fighters fled to Egypt aboard a fishing boat.

Haniyeh ordered the police, largely absent during the faction fighting, to ensure the rule of law in a territory long racked by complex clan rivalries where Islamist fringe groups inspired by al Qaeda have recently become active.

At dawn, Hamas fighters and civilian looters ransacked the blood-spattered presidential compound in Gaza, taking vehicles and weapons and hauling out fridges, televisions, even doors.

Hamas fighters showed reporters pools of blood where they said two of Abbas's guards had shot themselves rather than surrender. A Fatah official said they had been killed.

"Hello, Condoleezza Rice?" one masked gunman joked into the president's telephone. "You have me to deal with now."

By evening, calm had largely returned. Medics said three people were killed in scattered shooting. Some Gazans said they were anxious about the prospect of a reinforcement of religious rule.

"Our people are poor," said Hana, an engineer. "Will Hamas ... be able to feed them? What if (Abbas) stops sending money to Gaza ..? It looks like Somalia to me."

The western aid embargo was imposed after Hamas came to power in March 2006 because it failed to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept interim peace deals.

- REUTERS

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