01/10/2005, 00.00
palestine

Mahmoud Abbas wins Palestine poll

Ramallah (AsiaNews/Agencies) - PLO chairman Mahmud Abbas was set to be formally declared the new Palestinian president later on Monday after a landslide election victory as Israel warned his real challenges lay ahead. A jubilant Mr Abbas proclaimed victory soon after exit polls showed that he had secured around two-thirds of the votes cast, dedicating the result to his predecessor and long-time boss Yasser Arafat.  "We dedicate this victory to the memory of our martyred leader Yasser Arafat, as well as all the other martyrs, those who have been wounded as well the 11,000 prisoners behind bars" in Israeli jails, Mr Abbas told hundreds of his supporters in the Palestinian Authority's political capital Ramallah. "I will work to put an end to the suffering of the Palestinian people for they are a people who deserve our esteem, our respect and our loyalty." Mr Abbas's nearest rival Mustafa Barghuti, who was projected to have won around 19 per cent of votes cast, took a less positive view of the proceedings, charging that there had been blatant irregularities. However, Mr. Barghouti acknowledged defeat, saying it was a victory for Palestinian democracy.

The final result was due to be officially announced on Monday morning but the outcome of only the second-ever presidential election was never in doubt.

Voting was extended for two hours after the central elections commission claimed that Israeli restrictions in the occupied territories had hampered access to polling booths.

However monitors said that by and large there had been no major problems and there were no reports of any violence.

US President George W. Bush hailed the vote as an historic day for the Palestinian people.

"Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza took a key step toward building a democratic future by choosing a new president in elections that observers describe as largely free and fair," Mr Bush said in a statement.

The conduct of the ballot even won praise from Israel.

"I think to the best of my understanding and knowledge it's a democratic process and this in itself is enormously important because it's the only democratic process in the Arab world," said Deputy-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Mr Abbas's main fear had been that vast swathes of the electorate would heed a boycott call by the radical Islamist movement Hamas.

The elections commission said around 70 per cent of the 1.28 million registered voters had cast their ballots on Sunday. Despite its call for a boycott, Hamas was making conciliatory noises.

Mahmud Zahar, leader in its Gaza Strip stronghold, said his movement would be "constructive, not destructive". Elections showed the very narrow support enjoyed by armed groups.

An Abbas presidency is likely to lead to a resumption of top-level talks with Israel, frozen since he walked out after a short stint as Arafat's first premier in September 2003.

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