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Abbas, exiled Hamas chief fail to end dispute

DAMASCUS -- The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the exiled chief of the rival Hamas faction failed yesterday night to resolve an increasingly bloody dispute between their movements and form a unity government.

But Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said in a statement that they "achieved major progress" in the meeting -- their first since July 2005 -- and hoped to resume talks within two weeks.

"There are still points of disagreement, but we will try to resolve them through a national dialogue until we form a national unity government," Mashaal said at a joint news conference with Abbas in the Syrian capital.

The two sides stressed that recent Palestinian infighting that left at least 62 people dead was unacceptable and pledged to exert efforts to avoid political friction.

"We stress that dialogue is the only language allowed for solving our differences. . . . It is not normal to fight," Mashaal said.

The two men originally had been scheduled to meet Saturday evening, but that session was canceled, and officials from both sides had cautioned against expectations the meeting yesterday might yield immediate results.

Mashaal, who lives in exile in Syria, was whisked by security through a back door into the hotel suite where Abbas was staying in Damascus.

The meeting was attended by the deputy head of Hamas's political bureau, Moussa Abu Marzouk, other Syrian-based members, and Abbas's close aides. After an hour of discussions, the two leaders began a private meeting.

A senior Palestinian official said before the meeting ended that the talks were positive. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The meeting was held after intense mediation by Syria's vice president, Farouk al-Sharaa, who met separately with Mashaal and Abbas. Abu Marzouk had earlier said the chance of a sit-down was "nonexistent," but he told the Associated Press "serious mediation" by the Syrians persuaded Abbas and Mashaal to talk. Abu Marzouk had blamed the moderate Fatah president for the breakdown of talks and hinted Abbas was being pressured by Israel and the United States not to meet with Mashaal. The meeting "will send a message to the Palestinian people that the two sides are committed to continue dialogue," Abu Marzouk said.

He said the main sticking point in coalition talks were the conditions under which Abbas would name a new prime minister for the national unity government.