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American head of UN agency meets Hamas official

Written by: Staff

GAZA, Apr 17 (Reuters) The American head of a UN aid agency met today with a Hamas leader and Palestinian cabinet minister, who urged the world body to do more to help Palestinian refugees hurt by Western aid cuts.

Karen Koning AbuZayd, commisssioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), met Atef Odwan, the Palestinian minister of refugees, in her office in Gaza City.

The United Nations has advised its aid agencies to avoid meeting Hamas political leaders and to limit contacts to technocrats in the new Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. But U.N.

officials said agency heads were not barred from meeting Hamas ministers if needed to conduct their humanitarian work.

A statement issued by Odwan's office following the meeting said he had urged AbuZayd to do more to help alleviate ''the urgent needs in refugee camps.'' One of the issues they discussed was the frequent closure of crossing points into Gaza.

''This presents a serious obstacle to UNRWA's delivery of humanitarian goods and services throughout the Gaza Strip.

Humanitarian aid agencies need access in order to do their job,'' AbuZayd said after the meeting.

Already a major contributor to UNRWA, the U.S. government plans to increase the humanitarian aid it funnels to the Palestinians through the U.N. agency and others.

The Bush administration has frozen direct aid to the Palestinian Authority and has barred U.S. officials from having any dealings with members of the new Hamas government, including at technocrat level.

But the US government said on Friday that U.N. officials could meet Palestinian Authority officials in order to conduct ''official business''.

UNRWA was set up to help Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The agency lists more than 1.6 million Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

At the height of a Palestinian revolt, Israel accused UNRWA of ignoring use of its vehicles and facilities by militants.

UNRWA denied this.

Relations plummeted after UNRWA's then commissioner-general, Peter Hansen, said in an October 2004 television interview: ''I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll.'' REUTERS CH RN2120

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