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Hamas in Egypt to move ahead on truce effort

Top leader Zahar makes public appearance since war

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Leaders from the Palestinian group Hamas arrived in Egypt on Saturday to discuss progress in Cairo's efforts to arrange a truce with Israel, Egyptian and Hamas sources said.

Hamas officials said earlier that Hamas had no objections to a ceasefire lasting 18 months but a lifting of the blockade of the Gaza Strip must be part of the deal.

A previous ceasefire between Israel and Hamas collapsed in Dec. leading to a three-week Israeli offensive on the coastal enclave in which at least 1,300 Palestinians were killed before both sides separately halted hostilities.

"We've agreed to a unified position, and we'll relay it to the Egyptian authorities and then we'll take their response to the leadership in Damascus and then return to Cairo again," senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar told Reuters soon after crossing the border into Egypt as part of a seven-person Hamas delegation.

It was the first time Zahar has appeared in public since Israel's massive 22-day war against Gaza.

Zahar, believed to be the overall Hamas leader in the Palestinian territories, is among a delegation of seven Hamas officials who crossed the Rafah border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip on their way to Cairo for talks with intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.

The delegation will hear Israel's position, which senior Israeli defense official Amos Gilad relayed to Suleiman on Friday, Zahar said.

Hamas officials have said they are seeking clarifications on an Israeli offer to allow between 70 and 80 percent of goods through its crossings into Gaza, barring those it says could be used to make weapons.

The fact that Zahar himself was attending the talks showed how important the truce was to Hamas, a spokesman said.

Hamas regards Israel’s blockade as illegal collective punishment on Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinian population and cited it as a reason for not renewing the previous truce.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said on Friday Hamas would reject a truce unless it included a lifting of the blockade. He called Israeli proposals received through Egypt as vague.

Two-state solution

Meshaal, who lives in exile in Syria, is in Khartoum as part of a push to reinforce regional support for Hamas after the Israeli offensive, which Hamas believes led to diplomatic gains for the group.

In Ankara on Saturday, the Turkish government pledged to push for a lasting ceasefire in Gaza during talks with visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a rival of Hamas who is based in the West Bank.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden meanwhile said the United States would work to achieve a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.

"It is past time for a secure and just two-state solution. We will work to achieve it, and to defeat the extremists who would perpetuate the conflict," he told a security conference in Munich, Germany.