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Abbas Kicks Off Campaign, Fatah Leads in Palestinian Local Elections

Palestinian politician Mahmoud Abbas kicked-off his presidential campaign Saturday telling supporters in the West Bank that peace between Palestinians and Israelis is vital to regional stability.

Mr. Abbas called for peace through negotiations. He said Israel's plan to withdraw from Gaza must be part of a more comprehensive pull-out, and that some 8,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails must be freed. Mr. Abbas also stood firm on the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

Mr. Abbas is a former prime minister who became chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization after Yasser Arafat's death last month. He is the front-runner in the January 9 poll.

Thursday, West Bank residents in 26 localities voted in municipal elections. Early results show Mr. Abbas' party, Fatah, leading in at least 11 towns, with the militant group Hamas a strong second, with seven towns.

At stake were 360 local council seats in 26 communities throughout the West Bank and with hundreds of candidates to choose from.

Public opinion surveys have consistently shown Fatah as the most popular Palestinian faction, but they have also shown considerable support for Hamas, especially in the Gaza Strip. Some analysts expressed surprise at the group's strong showing in what were supposed to be Fatah strongholds in the West Bank.

Thursday's vote was seen as a test run for the January 9 presidential elections where former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is considered the front-runner to succeed Yasser Arafat.

Hamas is boycotting the January ballot, but its strong showing in the municipal elections continue to make the group a force to be reckoned with.

Separately, Palestinians say Israeli troops killed a Palestinian militant today when bulldozers demolished the building he was hiding in after a siege of several hours. The incident took place in the West Bank town of Jenin.