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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 December, 2004, 07:02 GMT
Palestinians vote in council poll
Boy hands out to cards with the names of candidates for the elections in the West Bank village of Beit Furik
Cards with the names of candidates have been handed out
Palestinians are going to the polls in the West Bank in their first municipal elections for nearly three decades.

More than 140,000 voters will choose from nearly 900 candidates in the town of Jericho and numerous villages.

Correspondents say Thursday's vote is seen as a rehearsal for the 9 January election to choose a successor to the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

It is also expected to be a test of strength between the dominant Fatah movement and the militant group Hamas.

The last time similar elections for councillors were held in the Palestinian territories was in 1976.

"This is a very important election because it prepares the way for the presidential election," Firas Yaghi, head of the municipal electoral commission, told Reuters news agency.

'Thirsty for democracy'

Fatah candidate Mahmoud Abbas is the favourite to win the presidential vote.

Hamas is boycotting the presidential poll, but has put forward candidates for Thursday's vote - the first time it has contested a Palestinian election.

Correspondents say the vote will serve as a barometer of Hamas's level of support beyond its Gaza stronghold.

Fatah says it is confident it will win the vote.

"It will be a challenge between Fatah and Hamas. It shows Palestinians are thirsty for democracy, and I can assure you Fatah will win," said senior Fatah leader Hussein Sheikh.

Voting is taking place in 26 municipalities across the West Bank for 12 hours until 1900 local time (1700 GMT).

A similar vote is due to take place in the Gaza Strip towards the end of January.

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