March 19, 2008 - 7:23pm

Hamas voiced willingness on Wednesday to talk to Fatah as part of a Yemeni reconciliation initiative but said the secular faction must drop its demand the Islamist group first give up control of the Gaza Strip.

"We do not accept it as a condition to restore dialogue," Hamas spokesmanAyman Taha said. "[The Gaza Strip] is only an item that can be discussed within the agenda of the talks."

Fatah official Ziad Abu Ein said it was sticking to the "fundamental condition that legitimacy must be returned to the Palestinian Authority" -- a direct reference to regaining Gaza sovereignty - for contacts with Hamas to resume.

The acceptance of the Yemeni initiative meant they were willing to accept mediation but were not budging from their positions on direct talks and the future of the Gaza Strip.

Delegations from the two factions were to meet separately with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa but a breakthrough seemed unlikely in the absence of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who was initially expected to lead the Islamist group's delegation.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi said he was still "optimistic about reaching an agreement between Hamas and Fatah".

Hamas seized the Gaza Strip, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, in fighting against Abbas's Fatah faction last June.

The Yemeni proposal calls for the situation in the territory to return to the way it was before the Hamas takeover and for Palestinian elections to be held, conditions endorsed by Abbas and so far rejected by Hamas.


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