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Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas met Tuesday with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and renewed a request to deploy an international force in Gaza, but Prodi suggested in a joint news conference that the time was not ripe for such a deployment.
Meanwhile, Hamas spokesman Salah Bardawil said his group would not accept such a contingent. "We would consider it an occupation force," Bardawil said.
Prodi expressed his support for Abbas and said Italy was prepared to funnel additional aid to the Palestinians.
"This is the time to give Palestinians hope," Prodi said. "We don't think humanitarian support is enough."
Abbas reiterated that he would only engage in dialogue with Hamas if the group reversed last month's violent takeover of Gaza and apologized to the Palestinian people. Hamas was unlikely to meet such demands.
Earlier Tuesday, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Prodi in a separate meeting that the Gaza takeover shouldn't divert attention from the key issue, reviving talks with Israel on the terms of Palestinian statehood.
"The most important thing was the need to revive the negotiations for the two-state solution," Erekat said of his talks with Prodi. Erekat said he also suggested that Italy, along with other European countries, take the lead in devising an economic recovery plan for the Palestinian territories.
Erekat quoted Prodi as saying he was "very worried" about the fall of Gaza to Hamas and the possible repercussions for Palestinian statehood.
In Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas hotly denied letting al-Qaida infiltrate the coastal strip, as Abbas alleged in an interview Monday with Italy's RAI TV. Abbas charged that "thanks to the support of Hamas, al-Qaida is entering Gaza," and refused to renew talks with the rival group.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri accused Abbas of trying to whip up sentiment against Hamas, with his allegations of a Hamas link to al-Qaida. Abbas offered no evidence to back up his allegations.
"Hamas has no links to al-Qaida," Abu Zuhri said. Abbas "is trying to mislead international opinion to win support for his demand to deploy international forces in Gaza."
Al-Qaida's presence in the Palestinian territories has been a subject of intense speculation since the 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington.
Al-Qaida's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, recently issued a call for supporting Hamas. But Hamas leaders, fearful of deepening the group's international isolation, have suggested they would steer clear of al-Qaida, in line with the movement's long-standing position to stay focused on the conflict with Israel.
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