Hamas arms cache found, Jordan says


JERUSALEM --In the most recent political headache for Hamas, Jordan said yesterday that it had uncovered a cache of Hamas weapons and postponed a visit by the Palestinian foreign minister, Mahmoud Zahar, who is also a senior Hamas leader.

Hamas denied the accusation and said it regretted the Jordanian decision to delay the talks.

A Jordanian government spokesman, Nasser Joudeh, told the Petra news agency that the Hamas weapons cache, which was found at an undisclosed site in Jordan, included rocket launchers, explosives and automatic weapons. Jordanian newspapers ran front-page photographs of the weapons yesterday.

"These activities contradict the positive commitment by the new Palestinian government not to use the Jordanian arena for any purposes that harm Jordan's security or for meddling in its internal affairs," Joudeh was quoted as saying.

Zahar planned to visit Jordan this week as part of a tour of Arab states. He is seeking money for the Palestinian Authority government, which faces a worsening financial crisis since Hamas, a radical Islamic group, assumed power last month.

Zahar's trip would have marked the most prominent visit by a Hamas leader since Jordan expelled several Hamas leaders in 1999. Jordan accused Hamas of secretly engaging in military training and of working with Islamic opposition groups in Jordan.

Hamas denied that it was storing weapons in Jordan.

"We in Hamas reject and condemn these false accusations," Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said yesterday in Gaza City. "We regret that the Jordanian government has used this to justify the canceling of the visit by the foreign minister."

Hamas has long insisted that it does not interfere with the internal affairs of Arab countries and that it fights only against Israel. According to Israel, Hamas uses neighboring countries to smuggle money and weapons into the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Jordan, a moderate Arab state that has a peace treaty with Israel and close relations with the United States, strongly supports the Palestinians. A large portion of the Jordanian population is of Palestinian origin.

But Jordan has tried to prevent the turmoil of the Israel-Palestinian conflict from spilling into its territory and has had friction with Hamas in the past.

In 1999, Jordan ejected several Hamas leaders, including Khaled Mashal, who is now the overall leader of the group. Mashal has been based in Syria since he was forced to leave Jordan. Hamas considers its relations with Muslim and Arab states as crucial, because the group has been ostracized by the West. The United States and the European Union regard Hamas as a terrorist group and are not providing money directly to the Palestinian Authority now that it is dominated by Hamas.

Hamas is calling on Muslim countries to provide additional assistance, but so far the response has been tepid.

Iran and Qatar each pledged recently to send $50 million to the Palestinian Authority. But the Palestinian Authority needs at least $150 million every month just to pay the salaries of government workers and provide basic services, Palestinian officials say.

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