Palestinian women urge release of Hamas prisoners

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RAMALLAH, West Bank, Sep 22 (Reuters) Chanting ''Yes to Palestinian unity'', some 200 Palestinian women marched in Ramallah today to urge President Mahmoud Abbas to release Hamas supporters from West Bank jails.

Scuffles broke out when the women -- wearing veils and shouting ''God is great'' -- tried to push past police, who tried to stop the march in the West Bank hub of Ramallah, where Abbas's Fatah faction is dominant.

Police detained one woman after she sprayed gas at a policeman but no serious violence erupted.

''It is Ramadan and our brothers and fathers are in Abbas's jails,'' said a woman who gave her name only as Rula. ''We are one Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank ... Abbas is helping the Israelis by jailing his own people.'' The protest came amid simmering tensions between the two Palestinian factions after the Islamist group routed Fatah forces in the Gaza Strip in June, prompting Abbas to sack a Hamas-led government.

Abbas has since established a new administration in the West Bank headed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, which has the backing of Western governments.

Hamas lawmaker Mona Munsoor said some 150 Hamas supporters had been jailed by Fatah-aligned forces in the West Bank for political reasons.

''The conditions are very harsh and they have been beaten,'' Munsoor told Reuters at the protest. ''We, the mothers, want to show the world what Fatah is doing to us.'' A senior security official said less than 100 Hamas supporters are being held in Palestinian jails.

Infighting between Palestinians and the split between Gaza and the West Bank threatens to undermine a US-sponsored peace conference exepcted to be held in November, which Palestinians hope will help them secure an independent state.

Today's protest was the first by Hamas supporters in Ramallah, the seat of the Fatah-backed government and an Abbas stronghold, since the June fighting in Gaza. The Islamist group has held marches in other West Bank cities since then.

Tensions between the factions have been particularly high in Gaza in recent weeks after Hamas security men beat Fatah supporters during protests and the Islamist group blamed mysterious explosions on Fatah loyalists.

REUTERS SBC RN1849

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