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Egypt rebuffs U.S.'s Rice on denying Hamas aid

By Staff
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CAIRO, Feb 21 (Reuters) Egypt rebuffed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's appeal today for Arab states to deny direct aid to Hamas when it forms a government.

In a news conference with lively exchanges Rice and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit also disagreed over Egypt's imprisonment of a leading opposition figure.

Rice began a trip to friendly Arab states in Egypt, which has a strong influence over its Palestinian neighbours. She is lobbying for them to pressure Hamas by refusing to give financial assistance to a group Washington considers a terrorist organization.

President Mahmoud Abbas asked Hamas today to form a new Palestinian government and pursue his agenda of negotiating with Israel, but the militant Islamic group said talks with the Jewish state would be a waste of time.

Gheit agreed Hamas should accept the need for a settlement with Israel based on a two-state solution as the United States wants.

But he would not back the U.S. position on ending financial support, which Palestinians worry will leave their aid-dependent government in crisis even if humanitarian aid from the United States and others continues.

''We should give Hamas time. I am sure that Hamas will develop, will evolve. We should not prejudge the issue,'' Gheit said.

Asked if this meant Egypt wanted Arab states to continue funding Hamas once it assumed power, he said, ''It is premature to judge the issue right now.'' The United States has sought to build an international front against Hamas since it won a shock parliamentary election last month.

Most governments have agreed to insist Hamas renounce violence, but it is unlikely many will support its position on isolating the anti-Israel group diplomatically and denying it said.

Rice, who has visited the Middle East periodically as America's top diplomat, gave the sharpest public criticism she has made on any trip to a friendly state about democratic reform.

She said she had spoken candidly to her counterpart about the ''disappointments and setbacks'' in Egypt and singled out the jailing last year of opposition leader Ayman Nour, whom she had met on a previous trip.

REUTERS PDS RAI0326

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