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Europe

Abbas Win Hailed as Chance for Peace

Following the convincing victory for Mahmoud Abbas in Sunday's Palestinian presidential election, European and US officials said they hoped the vote will jump-start the stalled Middle East peace process.

PLO chairman Mahmud Abbas was set to be formally declared the new Palestinian president Monday after a landslide election victory. A jubilant Abbas proclaimed victory soon after exit polls showed that he had secured around two-thirds of the votes cast, dedicating the result to his late predecessor and long-time boss Yasser Arafat.

"I will work to put an end to the suffering of the Palestinian
people for they are a people who deserve our esteem, our respect and our loyalty," Abbas told hundreds of his supporters in the Palestinian Authority's political capital Ramallah.

Abbas obtained 62.32 percent of votes cast, streets ahead of his nearest rival Mustafa Barghuti who won 19.8 percent, the figures by the central elections commission said on Monday.

The election result was hailed around the world as offering a chance for peace in the troubled Middle East. Both the United States and the European Union pledged they would help make the most of the opportunity presented by Abbas' rise to the Palestinian presidency.

"You can be sure that the European communities will help you in every respect -- politically, economically, with security or whatever you need," said EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana after meeting with the Palestinian president-elect Monday.

Javier Solana

Javier Solana

"We have a new opportunity now, an avenue of optimism, an avenue to work together to make the dream of so many people into a reality," he said.

Solana, who is on a week-long tour of the region, had talks ahead of the election with Jordan's King Abdullah II and Foreign Minister Hani Mulki on how Europe and Jordan can help the Palestinians.

Washington to boost peace efforts

US President George W. Bush said he was "heartened" by strong turnout in Palestinian elections on Sunday and promised to bolster peace efforts.

"This is a historic day for the Palestinian people and for the people of the Middle East," he said.

Bush urged Israel to help improve the humanitarian and economic situation in the West Bank and Gaza and said the Arab states must take "concrete steps with all parties to create a regional environment conducive to peace, lend financial support to the Palestinian people, and refuse to assist or harbor terrorists."

Abbas is considered moderate and pragmatic in Washington, which had supported him during his brief term as prime minister in 2003. But US officials have emphasized that Abbas will be judged by the progress of reforms that the US administration considers essential: controlling Palestinian security forces and ending attacks by radical Palestinian groups.

London peace conference

British Prime Minister Tony Blair congratulated Abbas on his win and said a conference to be hosted in London in March could help the Palestinian leader tackle the daunting tasks ahead.

Palästinenser Wahlen Wahllokal

A man casts his vote in the election on Sunday

"Mr Abbas faces considerable challenges in building the
institutions needed to underpin a viable Palestinian state. We will support him as he does so, including by hosting the London meeting in early March," Blair said in a statement.

The London conference, set for March 1-2, will focus on
Palestinian security, political and economic reforms in hopes that the moribund Middle East peace process can be revived.

Incoming US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice is to attend the event, along with delegates of the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and other countries, but Israel says it will stay away.

Israel optimistic

But Israel officials still said they hoped the election of Abbas would usher in a new era of peace.

"We hope that by electing Abu Mazen (Abbas), the Palestinians have ushered in a new era of peace and are taking the path of compromise and dialogue," a senior government official told AFP news service on condition of anonymity. "The Palestinians have been able to freely and democratically elect the person who will rule them and we hope they will renounce terrorism and the culture of hatred and death spread by Yasser Arafat," who died two months ago, he added.

Sharon und Abbas

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (right) and Abbas at a meeting in July 2003

Sources close to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon confirmed earlier Sunday that the hawkish Israeli leader was ready to meet the new president immediately and revive high-level contacts which had been frozen since 2003.

Sharon, who completely boycotted Yasser Arafat for the last few years, has been cautious not to be seen as endorsing Abbas but lately has said he believes the coming year will present "an opportunity for an historic breakthrough in relations between us and the Palestinians."

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