A prominent West Bank gunman carried a smiling Mahmoud Abbas on his shoulders Thursday, endorsing the presidential candidate and prompting questions of whether Abbas is playing politics or identifying with violent groups.
Abbas, the interim Palestinian leader, is the front-runner in a Jan. 9 election for Palestinian Authority president. His statements on how he will deal with Palestinian militants are closely monitored by the world.
In a related development, Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert told a newspaper that after Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank in the summer, further pullouts will be necessary. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon distanced himself from Olmert's remarks.
The highlight of Abbas' visit to the Jenin refugee camp next to the northern West Bank town of Jenin was his encounter with gunmen led by Zakaria Zubeidi, local leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a violent group with ties to Abbas' ruling Fatah party.
Zubeidi, who is idolized in the camp and wanted by Israel for organizing attacks and sending suicide bombers into Israeli cities, took center stage in welcoming Abbas. Jenin was the scene of heavy fighting during an Israeli incursion in 2002 that followed one of the bombings.
Zubeidi and other gunmen lifted Abbas, who waved to about 3,000 Palestinians, some of them armed.
Abbas won a ringing endorsement from Zubeidi. After Abbas left the stage, Zubeidi, with gunmen firing into the air, warned that he would deal with anyone who tried to challenge the elected Palestinian leadership. Then Zubeidi escorted Abbas' car out of the camp.
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