Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) said Saturday that he wants to shield Palestinian militants from Israel.

Abbas, speaking to The Associated Press, defended a series of recent public appearances with armed gunmen and indicated that he has no plans to disarm the militants anytime soon.

"When we see them, when we meet them, and when they welcome us, we owe them," Abbas said. "This always is to protect them from assassination, to protect them from killing, and all these things they are subject to by the Israelis."

Abbas, the front-runner in Jan. 9 Palestinian presidential elections, has spoken out against violence and called for a negotiated settlement with Israel — but he has also been courting militants, appearing with gunmen at campaign stops in the West Bank (search) and Gaza Strip in recent days.