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Palestinian Factions Agree to Direct Talks in Yemen, Disagree on Significance

At peace talks in Yemen, the two warring Palestinian factions have agreed to hold direct talks for the first time since the collapse of their unity government in June following the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. Officials in Yemen had hoped to broker a truce between Fatah and Hamas, but settled for a joint declaration signed in Yemen's capital city, Sanaa. VOA Middle East Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our bureau in Cairo.

The most significant part of the Sanaa declaration may be the fact that top officials from Fatah and Hamas were standing in the same room at the same time in order to sign it.

The two factions have not met face-to-face since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in June, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the unity government that had been forged at earlier peace talks in the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Abbas's Fatah faction has said it would not hold direct talks with Hamas until the militant group relinquished control of the Gaza Strip.

Senior leaders of Fatah and Hamas had been meeting separately with Yemeni officials since Tuesday in an effort to broker a new truce. The talks nearly broke down on Thursday and failed to produce a peace deal, but Yemeni officials touted as progress the signing of a joint statement accepting Yemen's peace initiative as a basis for dialogue.

The declaration signed Sunday is mainly an agreement to hold more talks - these ones face-to-face - over a Yemeni proposal for a peace deal between the two factions.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh witnessed the signing of the declaration and said it will build confidence between the two factions. He urged Fatah and Hamas to stay calm and not to "escalate things through the media," He said Yemen will host the next round of talks in April.

He did not give a precise date, but Palestinian sources indicated it could be at the beginning of the month.

The Yemeni proposal calls for creation of another Palestinian unity government, new elections and eliminating factional alliances in the Palestinian security forces.

Almost as soon as they signed the declaration, the two factions appeared to be at odds over what it meant, with Fatah downplaying its significance and Hamas touting it as a breakthrough.

Speaking by telephone from Yemen, senior Hamas political bureau member Mohammed Nasr said the joint declaration is significant. He said the resumption of talks between Fatah and Hamas "means a sparkle of hope for the Palestinian nation to renounce division and move toward unity."

In another development related to Gaza, Egyptian authorities have released at least 33 Hamas members that were detained in Egypt after the Gaza border was breached in January.

Egypt has been holding separate talks with Hamas and Fatah as well, partly in an effort to broker a truce between the two factions and partly in order to reach a deal on managing the controversial Rafah border post. It is the only border crossing out of the Gaza Strip that bypasses Israel, and it has been largely closed since Hamas took over the territory in June.

In January, militants knocked down the border fence, and for 11 days hundreds of thousands of Palestinians moved freely into Egypt to visit with relatives and to buy vital supplies that had been unavailable in Gaza during an Israeli blockade.