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Palestinian groups agree releases

Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar
Senior Hamas officials, including Mahmoud Zahar, have agreed to release Fatah detainees

Senior members of Hamas and Fatah, the main rival Palestinian factions, have agreed to release each other's members from detention.

Hamas has lifted house arrest on some Fatah members in the Gaza Strip while Fatah has released about 80 - out of a total 380 held - Hamas members.

The agreement came ahead of unity talks now under way in Cairo, which could lead to more aid for Gaza.

Factional rivalry came to a head when Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007.

Some kind of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah - which runs the Palestinian Authority in areas of the West Bank - is widely seen as an essential step towards a future Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Although with Israel also at a political crossroads analysts say that could be a long way off.

"A certain number of detainees will be freed right at the beginning of the dialogue," said a statement from Azzam al-Ahmed, leader of the Fatah bloc in the Palestinian parliament, and Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas official, referring to the talks about to start in Egypt.

"Other detainees will be freed successively so that this issue will be totally closed before the end of the national Palestinian dialogue," the statement said.

The two sides also promised to stop media attacks against each other.

Unity talks

FATAH-HAMAS RIVALRY
January 2006 - Hamas wins Palestinian Authority legislative election
March 2006 - Hamas government sworn in. US and EU suspend ties
February-March 2007 - Fatah and Hamas agree to form coalition to end growing factional warfare
June 2007 - Hamas seizes control of Gaza from Fatah after continued fighting. Unity government dissolved, Israel tightens blockade of Gaza Strip
About a dozen Palestinian groups are expected to be represented in the national dialogue, whose aim is to set up a unity government.

A unity government could serve for an interim period, preparing for new presidential and legislative elections and co-ordinating the rebuilding of Gaza.

The US, Britain and the EU have made clear that they would rather see non-partisan technocrats in control of the Palestinian territories than a coalition which includes Hamas.

A previous unity agreement fell apart after Israel and its international backers refused to deal with Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel.

Inter-factional fighting in Gaza came to a head in the summer of 2007 when Hamas fighters ousted the pro-Fatah security forces and overthrew PA control.

Egypt revived the call for Palestinian reconciliation talks in November.

However, Hamas withdrew from the talks, complaining that Fatah continued to arrest Hamas members in the West Bank.

Efforts to secure a reconciliation have gained strength since Israel's three-week military offensive in Gaza which ended on 18 January.

The Fatah and Hamas sides have fundamental differences over how to deal with Israel. While Fatah has renounced violence, Hamas refuses to recognise Israel. Hamas is prepared to accept a short-term truce but it reserves the right to fight Israel.

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