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Abbas: Palestinian militants will be protected

Mahmoud Abbas, the front-runner in the Palestinian presidential race, said Saturday that the Palestinian leadership had a duty to protect militants wanted by Israel and indicated that he did not intend to crack down on them.

Abbas has been critical of Palestinian attacks against Israel, arguing that they are counterproductive, and he reiterated that position on Saturday. But at a campaign rally and in interviews in the Gaza Strip, he also said the Palestinian leadership would seek to shield wanted militants from the Israeli forces.

"We will not forget the wanted, the heroes," he said at a rally in Rafah, a much-battered town on Gaza's southern border with Egypt. "They are fighting for freedom."

Until the Palestinian presidential campaign formally began a week ago, Abbas, 69, rarely delivered public speeches and was known as a bland figure who did not stir the passions of ordinary Palestinians, let alone the militants.

Yet he received a raucous welcome and was raised onto the shoulders of Palestinian gunmen as he campaigned in Rafah. He had been given a similar reception two days earlier in the restive Jenin refugee camp, where a troupe of gunmen led by one of the West Bank's most wanted man, Zakaria Zubeidi, demonstrated their enthusiasm for his candidacy by firing deafening bursts into the air.

In Rafah, he defended his recent campaign appearances with the gunmen.

"When we see them, when we meet them, and when they welcome us, we owe them," he told the Associated Press. "This debt always is to protect them from assassination, to protect them from killing, and all these things they are subject to by the Israelis."

Such strong remarks are in contrast to his earlier, more conciliatory speeches, which have included calls for an end to attacks against Israel.

Abbas is the overwhelming favorite to win the Saturday election to replace Yasser Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority. He has emphasized his adherence to Arafat's goals, which include the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a capital in Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees who lost land in fighting with Israel.

Abbas also has called for an end to the attacks carried out by al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade and other factions.

Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.