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Hamas, Fatah Agree To Form Palestinian Government

Hamas's Ismail Haniyah will continue as prime minister (file photo) (epa) February 9, 2007 -- The rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah have agreed to form a national-unity government after two days of talks in Mecca, Saudia Arabia.

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas's Fatah movement will appoint a deputy prime minister.

The document was signed late on February 8 by Abbas and the exiled leader of the ruling Islamist Hamas movement, Khalid Mishaal, in the presence of Saudi host King Abdullah.

Abbas, speaking in Mecca after the signing, called the agreement the beginning of a "new era with a new government that is capable of bringing an end to our suffering and the suffering of our people that has continued for a long time. This is the government that we wish for."

Mishaal in turn called on members of the two factions to observe the implementation of the deal, which is seen as a major step toward avoiding civil war between the two Palestinian factions.

Following the accord, dubbed as the "Mecca Declaration," Abbas asked Haniyah to form a new government.

The deal calls for "respect" of past peace agreements with Israel. Hamas has consistently refused to recognize Israel -- a key demand of Western states that have maintained a yearlong embargo on the Hamas-led government.

It is not yet clear whether the agreement now goes far enough to satisfy the Western demands, which include that Hamas renounce violence.

For now, the international community is responding with caution.

Russia's Foreign Ministry welcomed the deal, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it a "very important step forward."

But the European Union said it would study the document, and the United States said it was still waiting for more details before commenting.

Meanwhile today, Muslim worshippers scuffled with Israeli police near a contentious religious site in Jerusalem.

Police said they entered the area around the Al-Aqsa Mosque after being pelted with stones, and dispersed worshippers with stun grenades.

The clashes broke out after Friday Prayers at the compound, which is an important religious site to both Jews and Muslims. They came after Muslim leaders had called for protests over Israeli excavations near the site.

(compiled from agency reports)