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Palestinian president warns of Hamas arms smuggling in West Bank

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinian president on Thursday accused Hamas of smuggling large amounts of weapons into the West Bank as part of the militant group's efforts to undermine his administration.

President Mahmoud Abbas' his swipe at his Hamas rivals comes at a sensitive time, with the Palestinians divided between rival governments and U.S.-brokered indirect peace talks with Israel getting under way. Abbas said his security forces have confiscated most of the smuggled weapons.

Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas' forces three years ago, and the two factions have been at odds since. Israel fears Hamas could also stage a violent takeover in the West Bank, and those security concerns, along with the Palestinian factions' failure to reconcile, are likely to be key issues in the new round of peace talks.

In a newspaper interview published Thursday, Abbas accused Hamas of undermining efforts to reconcile the two factions by challenging his administration's power in the West Bank.

"What they are doing is smuggling weapons and explosives and storing them in the West Bank," he told the London-based Arabic paper Sharq al-Awsat. "On a daily basis, we find caches of weapons and big amounts of explosives."

The White House Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, is in the region this week for the start of indirect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — the first negotiations between the sides in more than a year. Israeli officials have said that security issues top their agenda, after years of rocket fire from Gaza at Israeli border communities. Israel fears that Hamas control of the West Bank would put the militant group on the doorstep of Israel's biggest cities.

Despite Abbas' allegations, Hamas appears to be significantly weakened in the West Bank after a lengthy crackdown. Dozens of Hamas militants are in either Israeli or Palestinian jails, and most arms busts by Abbas' forces yield only small weapons caches.

Omar Abdel-Raziq, a Hamas lawmaker in the West Bank, called Abbas' allegations "absolutely not true." He accused the president of trying to curry favor with the Americans and Israelis.

Israeli defense officials have expressed satisfaction with the performance of Abbas' security forces in recent months. Palestinian forces trained in a U.S.-sponsored program now maintain law and order in most West Bank cities.

There was no direct Israeli response to Abbas' comments, but the defense officials said they were unaware of any significant arms stockpiling by Hamas in the West Bank. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing an intelligence matter.

Mitchell was holding a second day of talks with Israeli leaders before meeting with Abbas on Friday. The indirect peace talks are expected to be officially launched this weekend, after a symbolic vote by the executive committee of Fatah, Abbas' party.

The U.S. hopes the indirect talks will lead to direct negotiations aimed at creating an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The Palestinians refuse to hold face-to-face talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unless he freezes construction in West Bank settlements and east Jerusalem — territories the Palestinians claim for their future state. Netanyahu has imposed a partial construction freeze in the West Bank. That order does not include Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, though there are signs of an unofficial construction freeze there as well.

Mitchell met Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whose office said the hour-long discussion concerned ways to turn the indirect talks into direct negotiations.

In the West Bank settlement of Hashmonaim on Thursday, Israeli authorities demolished a three-story building they said was built in violation of the construction freeze. Police said one person was arrested.

Also Thursday, Israeli firefighters said it appears a fire in a West Bank mosque earlier this week was likely deliberately set.

Palestinian investigators already accused Jewish settlers of setting Tuesday's blaze, which destroyed holy books and prayer rugs in the village of Luban a-Sharkiyeh.

Settlers have attacked Palestinian property in recent months to protest their government's decision to slow construction in Jewish settlements.