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Hamas heavyweight Zahar in Egypt for Gaza truce talks

Mahmud Zahar, a top Hamas leader in Gaza, crossed to Egypt for talks on consolidating a ceasefire with Israel in the battered coastal enclave, witnesses and a Hamas source said.

world Updated: Feb 08, 2009 09:34 IST

Mahmud Zahar, a top Hamas leader in Gaza, crossed to Egypt on Saturday for talks on consolidating a ceasefire with Israel in the battered coastal enclave, witnesses and a Hamas source said.

It was the first time Zahar had been seen in public since Israel's massive 22-day war against Gaza's Islamist rulers which ended with both sides calling separate ceasefires on January 18.

He is among a delegation of seven Hamas officials who crossed the Rafah border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip on their way to Cairo for talks with intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.

Zahar, believed to be the overall Hamas leader in the Palestinian territories, told the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television station that he would meet with Egyptian negotiators and members of Hamas's Syrian-based politburo later in the day.

The delegation will hear Israel's position, which senior Israeli defence official Amos Gilad relayed to Suleiman on Friday, Zahar said.

"There will be a follow up on the position Israel has arrived to, and based on that we will give the final Palestinian viewpoint," he told Al-Jazeera.

Suleiman has been mediating indirect talks between Israeli and Palestinians officials for a lasting truce since the war in Gaza, which killed at least 1,330 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

The fragile calm has been tested by Palestinian rocket attacks into Israel and retaliatory Israeli air strikes.

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza said the Islamist movement expects to see an agreement with Israel on the reopening of the border crossings into the Gaza Strip "within the next few days."

"If the Egyptian efforts are successful at this time, we expect to reach an agreement within the next few days," Fawzi Barhum told AFP.

Barhum said the talks were over an agreement "to end the siege, stop the aggression and reopen the crossings."

"If we receive convincing answers from Israel, through Egypt, we expect to reach an agreement in the next days," he reiterated.

Israel, which controls all crossings except Rafah, which is managed by Egypt, has kept the densely-populated strip closed to all but essential supplies since June 2007 when Hamas seized power, ousting forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

"There was some question about guaranteeing the truce and how the Rafah crossing will reopen and today we expect to have an answer from our Egyptian brothers," Barhum said.

Egypt closed Rafah on Thursday, after opening it to aid and Palestinian wounded during the war. Egypt has refused to permanently open the crossing in the absence of EU monitors and Abbas's representatives.

Hamas officials have said they are seeking clarifications on an Israeli offer to allow between 70 and 80 percent of goods through its crossings into Gaza, barring those it says could be used to make weapons.

The fact that Zahar himself was attending the talks showed how important the truce was to Hamas, Barhum said.

"It is very important for Hamas to see these Egyptian efforts succeed," he added.