Hamas says gets Saudi promise on continued aid

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RIYADH, Mar 12 (Reuters) Palestinian militant group Hamas said that Saudi Arabia had vowed to remain one of the biggest financial backers of the Palestinians, despite US and European threats to cut aid.

The United States and the European Union have threatened to tighten the taps on the Palestinian Authority unless Hamas, which is gearing up to form its new government, gives up its armed struggle against Israel and recognises the Jewish state.

Hamas leaders are in Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter and birthplace of Islam, on a tour of Arab and other countries seeking support after their surprise win in parliamentary elections in January.

''They affirmed yesterday that political and financial aid to the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian people would continue,'' said Ezzat El-Resheq, a member of Hamas' politburo.

''We did not go into numbers, but they promised excellent support,'' he told Reuters, referring to a meeting the delegation had with Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal yesterday.

Resheq declined to say whether Riyadh had promised to increase funding to fill gaps caused by Western countries. Saudi officials were not immediately available for comment.

Saudi Arabia is largely seen as the biggest financial backer of the Palestinian Authority. Saudi citizens and charitable foundations donate some 150 million dollars each year to support social and economic projects in the Palestinian territories.

Yesterday, the Palestinian delegation held separate meetings with Foreign Minister Prince Saud and Prince Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz, the Saudi intelligence chief, the state news agency SPA reported without giving details.

Prince Saud publicly spurned a US call to isolate Hamas during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month.

''We believe the Saudi position will be extremely important in breaking the embargo that America and Israel want to impose on our people,'' Resheq said. ''It is completely unreasonable to cut off an entire people.'' Around 3 million Palestinians under Israeli control since the 1967 Middle East war want an independent state. But Hamas has been shunned by Western countries because it carries out suicide attacks against civilians inside Israeli cities.

Although Saudi Arabia is a key Arab ally of the United States, withholding aid is seen as politically impossible for the government because of popular support for the Palestinians, not least now that an Islamist group has come to power.

The kingdom has traditionally sought to champion Muslim causes, at various points backing Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan, Bosnian Muslims in the Balkan country's 1992-95 war and Chechens against Russia.

Saudi media said the five-man Hamas delegation -- which is headed by leader-in-exile Khaled Meshaal -- would go on to visit Yemen, Bahrain and Kuwait, probably leaving Riyadh on Sunday after a meeting with King Abdullah.

REUTERS SB KP0931

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