PA to disband al-Aqsa Martyrs group


Middle East: The Palestinian Authority is to begin dismantling one of the major armed groups in the territories. It plans to incorporate the group's members into its security service once they have undergone special training, the Palestinian prime minister said yesterday.

"We have agreed to establish five new camps for training," Ahmed Korei said. He was referring to the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant group that has been at the forefront of armed attacks against Israel and is loosely associated with the ruling Fatah party.

A senior Palestinian security official said the training camps would be running in a few weeks. The disarmament programme is to begin in the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Nablus.

The road map peace plan stipulates that the Palestinians must disarm groups such as al-Aqsa and Hamas; Israel has said there will be no progress in talks with the Palestinians until this happens. However, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has refused to use force to dismantle these militias, insisting he would employ dialogue to achieve this and so head off a civil war.

So far he has had little success, with none of the armed groups agreeing to lay down its weapons.

In fact, due to the weakness of the Palestinian Authority's security forces, armed groups reign supreme in large areas of the West Bank and Gaza, often meting out their own form of vigilante justice. In recent months in Gaza, Palestinian officials have been attacked, offices of the authority have been invaded by armed groups and foreigners have been kidnapped.

Israel, meanwhile, yesterday began to retreat from its efforts to keep Hamas out of the Palestinian parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for January.

The move comes after President Bush did not make a public call for Hamas to be excluded from the elections during a meeting with Mr Abbas last week.

Last month Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon said if Hamas was involved in the elections, Israel would not co-operate with the Palestinian Authority in conducting them.

Israel's co-operation is essential, since it operates many roadblocks in the West Bank that would have to be opened to allow voters easy access to the polls.

Asked if Israel would impede the elections should Hamas participate, justice minister Tzipi Livni replied: "It is not in Israel's interest. It is in the Palestinian interest that Hamas takes part in elections."