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US Reaffirms Backing for Abbas in Intra-Palestinian Conflict

The United States is reaffirming support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the fighting that has left Hamas militants in control of most of Gaza. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the Palestinian leader acted lawfully in dismissing the three-month-old Palestinian unity cabinet and declaring a state of emergency. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Secretary Rice and key aides are reaching out to moderate Arab states and other U.S. allies in an effort to shore up international support for Mr. Abbas in the confrontation with Hamas.

Rice, who had a telephone conversation with the Palestinian leader Thursday before his emergency decree, stressed at a photo session with visiting Baltic foreign ministers that the Palestinian leader continues to have full U.S. backing.

"President Abbas has exercised his lawful authority as president of the Palestinian Authority, as the leader of the Palestinian people," she said. "We are reminded that he was elected in 2005 by a large margin, and we fully support him in his decision to try and end this crisis for the Palestinian people."

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice, who initiated the call to Mr. Abbas, underlined U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority chief and for other Palestinian moderates committed to working with Israel for Middle East peace.

Though the United States considers the entire Hamas movement to be a terrorist organization, McCormack put particular blame for the Gaza violence on the Syrian-based military wing of Hamas, which he said wants to "short-circuit and pre-empt" Palestinians who reject violence and support a political path to peace.

He noted that even as the now-dismissed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was joining President Abbas in a cease-fire appeal on Wednesday, Hamas militants continued to assault government security sites in action that apparently had been planned for some time.

"There are reports of the Hamas military wing using tunnels underneath some of the Palestinian Authority security force institutions to launch attacks," McCormack said. "That didn't just happen in the past couple days. This has been something that is premeditated and planned, and quite clearly meant to try to extinguish any sort of political debate within the Palestinian system about which way the Palestinian people want to go."

McCormack said Rice made an earlier call to Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit to discuss, among other things, how Egypt might tighten control of its border with Gaza to curb weapons smuggling to Hamas.

He also said the Bush administration would consider a call by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for an international peacekeeping force for Gaza.

But he said it would be difficult to find countries willing to send troops into what would likely be a hostile environment.

The Bush administration received Congressional approval in April for a $60 million program to provide training and non-lethal equipment to Palestinian security forces controlled by Mr. Abbas.

Officials here say that program, run by the U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Army Lieutenant-General Keith Dayton, will continue despite the rout of Abbas loyalists in Gaza.