'Significant Progress' Reported in Secret Talks Between Rival Hamas and Fatah Factions

Significant progress has been made in secret coalition talks between the supreme Hamas leader and envoys of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, officials from both sides said Saturday, signaling a sudden shift in atmosphere after several weeks of deadly internal fighting.

In another unexpected show of unity, the civil servants' union dominated by Abbas' Fatah movement announced Saturday that it is ending a strike it had launched four months ago, to protest non-payment of salaries by the Hamas-led government.

And in Gaza, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh called on his Hamas movement and on Fatah to halt their increasingly violent power struggle that claimed 35 lives in recent weeks. "Enough, I say enough," he said in a televised speech. "All forms of internal fighting must stop."

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The secret coalition talks started in Syria two weeks ago between top Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and two Abbas envoys, independent legislator Ziad Abu Amr and Mohammed Rashid, a former adviser to Abbas' predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat, officials from both sides said.

The two envoys were heading to Damascus on Saturday for another round of talks, the officials said.

Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy head of Hamas' political bureau in Damascus, confirmed the secret talks and said Mashaal would meet with Abbas early next week in the Syrian capital. "I hope his meetings in Damascus would be constructive and lead to a resolution of all outstanding problems that have ruptured the dialogue in the past," he said.

Abbas unexpectedly left for Jordan on Saturday to brief Jordan's King Abdullah II on the developments. In Amman, he said a date for the meeting with Mashaal would be set next week.

On Sunday, he is to meet in the West Bank with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrived in Israel on Saturday as part of a broader tour of the Middle East.

Hamas and Fatah, bitter political rivals, had made repeated attempts in recent months to form a coalition, but talks failed because of disagreements over the political program and control over key Cabinet posts, such as interior, finance and foreign affairs. Hamas balked at international demands that any Palestinian government recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept existing peace deals.

Under the emerging coalitiuon deal, former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, who is close to Fatah, would return to the job, Abu Amr would be named foreign minister and Haniyeh would remain prime minister, a senior Hamas official said. Two key sticking points in previous talks — the government's program and who will control most of the security forces — have not yet been resolved.

"We are optimistic today," said Nasser Shaer, the deputy prime minister from Hamas.

It remains unclear whether Hamas and Fatah can end the yearlong political deadlock and reach a power-sharing agreement. Hamas, the winner of parliament elections a year ago, controls the Cabinet and parliament, while Abbas, elected separately, wields considerable power as president.

Last month, in a challenge to Hamas, Abbas threatened to call early election legislative and presidential elections, saying the Islamic militants — hit hard by an international aid boycott — have failed to provide basic services to the Palestinian people. Hamas accused Abbas of trying to bring down an elected government by illegal means, and vowed it would prevent elections from being held ahead of schedule.

Despite the rancor and bloodshed, it became increasingly clear that Abbas cannot impose elections on Hamas, while the Islamic militants feared their popularity would suffer over continued internal fighting.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, the civil servants' union announced its members were ending a four-month strike. The Palestinian Authority is the largest employer in the West Bank and Gaza, with some 165,000 people on the payroll.

Since Hamas came to power in March, it has only paid partial salaries because of the international aid boycott. The workers ended the strike Saturday without assurances that they would be paid in full.

Most of the civil servants had already returned to work before the announcement. Some 80,000 members of the security forces had stayed on the job, while 40,000 teachers and 12,000 health workers returned to work last month.

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