'Egypt Entices Palestinians to Unite With Gaza Crossings Pledge'

Participants in Hamas-Fatah talks say Egypt offered to open Gaza crossings if they reconciled.

Egypt told rival Palestinian factions meeting in Cairo that the country will reopen its border with the Gaza Strip if the two sides can reach a reconciliation agreement, participants in the discussions said Sunday.

Hamas and Fatah began a fifth round of talks Saturday aimed a striking a deal to share power and ending a nearly two-year split that occurred after Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007, leaving Fatah with authority over the West Bank.

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who is mediating the discussions, gave the two sides until the beginning of July to reach an agreement and promised Egypt would open the Gaza border if they succeeded, two Fatah officials told The Associated Press. Azzam al-Ahmed and Nabil Shaath participated in Saturday's meeting with Suleiman.

Egypt's increasing pressure on the Palestinians could be an attempt tohighlight the country's role in the discussions ahead of President HosniMubarak's meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Barack Obama, next week inWashington

Egyptian officials declined to comment on the promise to reopen the country's border, and it was unclear if Israel would agree to reopen its crossings with Gaza. Israel has said it would only agree to open its borders after Hamas releases an Israeli soldier the militant group seized in 2006.

Reopening the borders is critical to rebuilding Gaza after Israel's three-week offensive in December and January that aimed to stop Hamas from firing rockets into its territory.

Reconciliation between the Palestinian factions is just as important becausethe international community, which has pledged billions of dollars to rebuildGaza, says it will only deal with a Palestinian government that recognizesIsrael, a concession Hamas has been unwilling to make.

The split between Hamas and Fatah has also hampered U.S. efforts to jump-start the peace process between the Israelis, Palestinians and the broader Arab world.

"There will be no reconstruction, no lifting of siege, no truce and no peace talks until an agreement is reached," Egypt's official news agency quoted Suleiman as saying after Saturday's meeting.

Egypt has proposed Hamas would stay out of the transitional government,allowing the more moderate Fatah leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to run it. In return, Hamas and other Palestinian factions would become part of an advisory committee that would be given a say in the government's decisions, said an Egyptian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

But the prospects do not look good for the two sides reaching an agreement.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a close aide to Abbas, said Sunday that Fatah won't accept the offer because this means it will deepen the split.

Mahmoud Zahar, Hamas' strongman in Gaza, said at the start of Saturday'ssession that his group was still studying the Egyptian proposal. But herepeated the group's position that it will not be part of any government that involves the recognition of Israel.

The two sides are scheduled to meet again on Monday.